Peter Rhee
Ross D. Franklin  /  AP
Dr. Peter Rhee, Trauma and Critical Care Emergency Surgery doctor at University Medical Center, describes the gunshot wound Rep. Gabrielle Giffords received on Saturday, during a news briefing at UMC in Tucson, Ariz.
By
updated 1/14/2011 6:39:41 PM ET 2011-01-14T23:39:41

One is an irrepressible South Korea native who has treated some of the most horrific wartime injuries in Iraq and Afghanistan. The other is a reserved neurosurgeon who happens to be the brother-in-law of television show host Dr. Oz.

Together, they have stood in their white lab coats before a gaggle of TV cameras every morning to update the nation about their highest-profile patient to date: Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was critically wounded after being shot point-blank in the head last weekend.

It's a role both are still getting used to.

  1. Don't miss these Health stories
    1. Splash News
      More women opting for preventive mastectomy - but should they be?

      Rates of women who are opting for preventive mastectomies, such as Angeline Jolie, have increased by an estimated 50 percent in recent years, experts say. But many doctors are puzzled because the operation doesn't carry a 100 percent guarantee, it's major surgery -- and women have other options, from a once-a-day pill to careful monitoring.

    2. Larry Page's damaged vocal cords: Treatment comes with trade-offs
    3. Report questioning salt guidelines riles heart experts
    4. CDC: 2012 was deadliest year for West Nile in US
    5. What stresses moms most? Themselves, survey says

Veteran trauma surgeon Dr. Peter Rhee is boisterous, using phrases like "101 percent" survival to describe Giffords' prognosis. His willingness to share day-to-day details about her progress and his joking demeanor is a draw to those tuning in for the latest signs of improvement.

The yin to Rhee's yang, neurosurgeon Dr. Michael Lemole is more measured. He speaks of Giffords' recovery with caveats and has declined to speculate on the one question everyone wants to know: what her life might look like down the road.

Story: Doctor 'actually confident' of Giffords' recovery

Lemole said their differences in approach have a lot to do with their backgrounds. Military doctors tend to measure success in number of lives saved whereas a brain doctor cares about the quality of life after survival.

"Rather than say, 'Woo-hoo, we won,' I say, 'OK, we've crossed this hurdle. Now let's shoot for the next one,'" he said in an interview with The Associated Press.

Despite their different personalities, both are closely involved in Giffords' care, checking up on her and her family several times a day.

Both doctors were away from University Medical Center — the city's only trauma center capable of treating the most seriously injured — when they got word Giffords had been shot.

Lemole had just finished a golf lesson with one of his sons. While driving in to the hospital, he heard a false report on the radio that Giffords had died.

"The first gut-wrenching feeling was, 'Oh my gosh. I'm going in and there's nothing I can do,'" Lemole recalled. He quickly brushed the thought aside and speed-dialed one of his residents, who told him Giffords was still breathing.

  1. Don't miss these Health stories
    1. Splash News
      More women opting for preventive mastectomy - but should they be?

      Rates of women who are opting for preventive mastectomies, such as Angeline Jolie, have increased by an estimated 50 percent in recent years, experts say. But many doctors are puzzled because the operation doesn't carry a 100 percent guarantee, it's major surgery -- and women have other options, from a once-a-day pill to careful monitoring.

    2. Larry Page's damaged vocal cords: Treatment comes with trade-offs
    3. Report questioning salt guidelines riles heart experts
    4. CDC: 2012 was deadliest year for West Nile in US
    5. What stresses moms most? Themselves, survey says

Rhee was jogging three miles (five kilometers) from his home and turned back to rush to the hospital. He credited his staff and his experience in the battlefield, where he had few supplies, for his quick treatment of the congresswoman and the other victims.

Story: Bullet to the head can be overcome, survivors say

He was confident Giffords would survive after learning that she had been able to squeeze a doctor's hand when she arrived at the hospital, something most gunshot victims can't do.

"She was alive at that time," Rhee said. "If she comes to me alive, I can keep her alive."

Giffords remains in critical condition after Saturday's brain surgery, but has been making remarkable progress. She opened her eyes for the first time Wednesday shortly after President Barack Obama visited her bedside en route to a memorial for the shooting victims.

Before the memorial, a roaring crowd gave the doctors and their families a standing ovation. Their faces were projected on a big screen and Rhee was spied posing for photos with fans.

The doctors have received a flood of thank-you e-mails and letters of support from strangers around the country. Rhee said he has even received scores of Facebook friend requests, which he hasn't answered.

"It's humbling because we do this every day, week in, week out," Lemole told a news conference Thursday. "It's nice to know that there is this kind of outpouring, but it doesn't change what we do."

Lemole, 42, is the son of a doctor who grew up on a farm in Pennsylvania. He graduated from Harvard University and received his medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania.

Lemole continues to juggle his time caring for Giffords and his other patients. Lemole skipped Wednesday's press conference to operate on a patient and to consult with a new one. He has no aspirations to be like his brother-in-law, the heart surgeon and talk show host Dr. Mehmet Oz, made famous by guest appearances on Oprah Winfrey's show.

Born in Seoul, South Korea, Rhee, 49, lived for several years in Uganda as his father, also a surgeon, worked in the Peace Corps. The elder Rhee moved the family to the United States when Rhee was 10 to get a better education.

Rhee has become a cheerleader for Tucson, taking every opportunity before a press conference to praise the spirit of his adopted hometown. Even as he keeps the nation updated on his VIP patient, he likes to remind people about all the faceless trauma victims.

"People are injured every single day," he said. "There's nobody that's more important than another."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Rep. Giffords’ recovery ‘miraculous, lucky’

  1. Transcript of: Rep. Giffords’ recovery ‘miraculous, lucky’

    VIEIRA: That's good news. NBC 's Miguel Almaguer , thank you very much . Dr. Nancy Snyderman is NBC 's chief medical editor. Nancy , good morning to you.

    Dr. NANCY SNYDERMAN reporting: Hey, Meredith.

    VIEIRA: Hard to believe just six days ago...

    SNYDERMAN: Hm.

    VIEIRA: ...Congresswoman Giffords was shot in the head. And had that bullet penetrated her brain in just a slightly different direction she would probably be dead. But since then, she has put up two fingers, she's moved her arms and her legs...

    SNYDERMAN: Mm-hmm.

    VIEIRA: ...she's opened her eyes. Doctors say they seem now to be tracking.

    SNYDERMAN: Right.

    VIEIRA: Is what we're witnessing miraculous given someone in her condition?

    SNYDERMAN: It's a combination of miraculous, lucky that the trajectory of the bullet is what it was, and I think we have to give a lot of credit to this stellar medical crew. They had her from a battlefield through the ICU , I mean, and into the OR and then back to the ICU within 38 minutes. I mean, they treated this like it was, you know, a typical war zone. The physicians and everyone on the faculty there, it's made a huge difference in her recovery. But what they said yesterday was her ability now to follow commands. They're simple commands, but it shows that things are firing in her brain and connections are being made. And the fact that she can now track a little bit with her eyes means that she's cognizant of some things around her.

    VIEIRA: You know, when she opened her eyes for the first time she was surrounded by some of her female colleagues.

    SNYDERMAN: Right.

    VIEIRA: Senator Gillibrand spoke so eloquently about that. Afterwards, one of the others was in there, Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz , was in the hospital room. She said it shows you what a little girl power can do. She was kind of joking, but there's merit in those words, isn't there?

    SNYDERMAN: Yeah, I -- look, I think she's joking but we know it's true.

    VIEIRA: Yeah.

    SNYDERMAN: When people are stand -- sitting vigil and her husband is there and the television is on, you recognize, patients will tell you afterwards, that they were surrounded. But then there's sort of a new voice, it's familiar, and it makes your brain work a little harder. And if it's a deep girlfriend, yeah, there are chemical changes, there are emotional changes. So there's -- we don't -- it's what I would called soft science. There's something to it. But something pushed her a little bit. It was that familiar voice in an unfamiliar setting and then of course the doctors asked them to leave because they didn't want to exhaust her.

    VIEIRA: Yeah.

    SNYDERMAN: But a phenomenal sign.

    VIEIRA: And the doctors are saying now that they're going to start aggressive physical therapy with her. I know they've...

    SNYDERMAN: Right.

    VIEIRA: ...sat her up and they're going to, I think, put her in a chair today, sit her in a chair today?

    SNYDERMAN: Yeah. They're not so worried about the brain swelling at this point. Now they move into just normal stuff. They don't want her to throw a blood clot, they don't want her to get pneumonia. That tube down her throat is to protect her airway. They would like to get that out sooner than later so they...

    VIEIRA: They can hear if she can speak?

    SNYDERMAN: They want to be able to hear her speak and evaluate her brain. Now I just want to caution everyone, now the baby steps happen. A little bit every day that will be cumulative. Will she be walking out of this hospital next Friday? No. She's under -- she's looking frankly at months and years of rehabilitation both mentally and physically and psychologically. And we'll learn more every day, but a real shootout again to those surgeons for being so frank and yet not being pushed into saying things that they really don't mean. But this is really quite wonderful.

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments