Rep. Gabrielle Giffords' friends say it's nothing short of a miracle: Days after being shot in the head point-blank, the injured congresswoman opened an eye Wednesday for the first time.
Two of her closest friends from Congress, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., were in Giffords' Tucson, Ariz., hospital room at the time. Both had traveled to Arizona on Air Force One with President Obama to attend a memorial service for the victims of Saturday's shooting rampage.
Obama and first lady Michelle Obama immediately headed to University Medical Center after landing in Tucson, and spent about 10 minutes with Giffords and her husband, Mark Kelly. Soon after, Gillibrand and Wasserman Schultz, along with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, got their chance to visit.
The women became close friends while they were all serving in the House. Their professional bond turned personal, with Giffords and her husband going on double-dates with Gillibrand and her husband at Matchbox, one of their favorite Washington restaurants, and taking summer vacations to New Hampshire with Wasserman Schultz's family.
These were the memories they were sharing with Giffords when the congresswoman started to signal that she may have known they were there.
Gillibrand said she was holding Giffords' left hand when she started to feel it move. Giffords squeezed the senator's hand, then rubbed her hand with her thumb.
Then Giffords' right eye started to flicker. (Her left eye, damaged in the shooting, is bandaged.) For about 30 seconds, Giffords struggled, before finally opening her eye wide and straining to focus on her friends, husband, parents and doctor.
"We knew she could hear and understand what we were saying," Gillibrand told reporters traveling back to Washington with the president Thursday morning.
It was the first time Giffords had opened her eye since the shooting. Kelly told Giffords to give him a thumbs-up if she could hear him. Instead, she slowly raised her left arm.
"The doctor said this is amazing what she's doing right now and beyond our greatest hopes," Gillibrand said.
"It felt like we were watching a miracle," Wasserman Schultz said. "The strength that you could see flowing out of her, it was like she was trying to will her eyes open."
Kelly told the president and first lady about the development as they drove from the hospital to the University of Arizona's McKale Center, where Obama would speak at a memorial service. Kelly gave the president permission to tell the crowd about his wife's progress.
"Gabby opened her eyes," Obama told the cheering crowd. "So I can tell you: She knows we are here, she knows we love her, and she knows that we are rooting for her through what is undoubtedly going to be a difficult journey."
Doctors said Wednesday that Giffords' remarkable recovery from a gunshot wound to the head is progressing as anticipated, and she has become more responsive as she comes off heavy medication.
Dr. Peter Rhee, trauma chief at University Medical Center in Tucson, told reporters that her condition is stable, and so far, has not taken any dips.
"We have really decreased the amount of sedation we are giving her, and as a result of that, she is becoming more and more spontaneous all the time," Rhee said.
On Tuesday, Rhee said she has "a 101 percent chance of surviving," as she made more progress, moving both arms and breathing on her own for the first time — just three days after a bullet shot through her brain.
Doctors emphasize she is in for a long recovery, and her neurosurgeon repeated his cautionary phrase of "she's holding her own."
But there was no denying what was clearly good news.
Giffords, a three-time Democrat, remains in critical condition at Tucson's University Medical Center where she was operated on Saturday after being shot during a meeting with constituents outside a Safeway supermarket. The attack killed six and injured 14 others. Six remained hospitalized.
Giffords' improvement has been incremental, but impressive. Doctors previously reported she raised two fingers of her left hand and gave a thumbs-up when responding to verbal commands. Now they say she is moving her arms.
She also can breathe on her own but still has a breathing tube in place as a precaution, said her neurosurgeon Dr. Michael LeMole.
NewsCore and the Associated Press contributed to this report.