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‘Better, stronger, tougher’ Gabrielle Giffords and husband talk recovery at TED

Mark Kelly and Gabrielle Giffords are fighting for changes to U.S. firearms laws.

Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

Gabrielle Giffords and Mark Kelly first met in Vancouver about 10 years ago – at the airport, both about to take a trip to China. The couple returned to the city together for the first time on Friday, their lives changed irrevocably over that decade.

During an emotional interview at the TED Conference, they discussed Ms. Giffords' recovery from a shooting in 2011, when she was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. She was shot in the head during an appearance at a suburban Tucson grocery store. Six people were killed.

That weekend, Mr. Kelly, an astronaut, was in Houston preparing for a Space Shuttle mission.

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"On that Saturday morning, I got this horrible phone call – Gabby's chief of staff. She didn't have much other information – just that Gabby was shot. A few minutes later, I called her back. I actually thought for a second, well, maybe I'd just imagined getting this phone call. I called her back and that's when she told me that Gabby had been shot in the head. And from that point on, I knew that our lives were going to be a lot different," said Mr. Kelly, who did most of the speaking during the interview.

"They didn't know how long Gabby would be in a coma, they didn't know when that would change, and what the prognosis would be."

He recalled the first sign of recovery.

"Gabby was still kind of almost unconscious, but she did something when she was in the ICU hospital bed that she used to do when we might be out to dinner at a restaurant," he said. "She pulled my ring off and she flipped it from one finger to the next; at that that point, I knew that she was still in there."

Ms. Giffords' recovery continues. She is walking, but haltingly. She has aphasia – as her husband put it, she knows what she wants to say, but cannot get it out.

But she is working with a speech therapist, even learning Spanish. She is doing yoga and has tried skydiving. She has a service dog, Nelson, who was raised by a Massachusetts prisoner serving a sentence for murder.

"It will be a long, hard haul, but I'm optimistic," Ms. Giffords said on Friday.

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When asked whether she hopes to return to her old self or create a new Gabby Giffords, she responded – "the new one – better, stronger, tougher."

Not quite seven months after the shooting, Ms. Giffords returned to Congress for the important vote on the debt. A few months later, she resigned.

Mr. Kelly, who had called his boss the morning after the shooting and asked to be replaced on the upcoming shuttle mission, returned to space a few months later. He recalled making a rendezvous with the International Space Station at the very moment his wife was having brain surgery. (A piece of her skull, he revealed, is in their freezer at home in a Tupperware container.) He has since retired from NASA.

Their vocation now is advocacy for what they call "reasonable" gun laws. Gun owners themselves, they say they support rights, but with their group, Americans for Responsible Solutions, they are fighting for changes that will deny criminals and people who are "dangerously mentally ill" access to firearms, Mr. Kelly said.

At the end of the interview, Ms. Giffords stood to deliver a short speech, explaining that she is working hard on her recovery.

"But my spirit's strong as ever. I'm still fighting to make the world a better place, and you can too. Get involved with our community. Be a leader, set an example. Be passionate, be courageous, be your best."

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