By Deborah Quinn Hensel
HOUSTON (Reuters) - The first photographs of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords since she was shot in the head in January were posted on Sunday on her Facebook page as preparations were being made to end her hospitalization.
The Arizona Democrat is expected to be discharged from the Institute for Rehabilitation and Research (TIRR), Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center in Houston "really soon" to continue therapy on an out-patient basis, her spokesman, C.J. Karamargin, told Reuters.
Giffords, a resident of Tucson, Arizona, will remain in the Houston area for the time being so she can visit TIRR Memorial Hermann for daily rehabilitation sessions, he said.
Karamargin said her abilities are improving weekly and that discussions were under way for Giffords to resume more active duties with her congressional office.
The photos were taken at the hospital by a professional photographer the day before Giffords underwent cranioplasty surgery in May to replace part of her skull.
In the pictures, a smiling Giffords is seen with very short hair, wearing glasses and a burgundy shirt with a multicolored collar. There is no visible sign of her head wound except a slight indentation to her left temple, where a piece of her skull was still missing. A scar on her throat from her tracheotomy also is visible.
"She looks better now than when the photo was taken," Karamargin said.
Giffords posed for the pictures May 17, the day after the launch of the Endeavour space shuttle mission commanded by her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly.
"These pictures show a resilient woman who has made amazing progress," Karamargin said. "She had just seen her husband go into space on a rocket. Who wouldn't be smiling?"
Karamargin said Giffords and Kelly wanted to release the photos in response to the tremendous public interest in her recovery and her appearance.
"Any photographer in the country would have loved the opportunity to take these pictures, and I was delighted to be asked," said photographer P.K. Weis of SouthwestPhotoBank.com in a statement released with the photos.
Weis, who has known Giffords for more than a decade, said the congresswoman's mother, a close friend and one of her staff members were present for the photo shoot.
"It was very inspiring to see how much she had recovered in four and a half months," Weis said. "I was excited to see her and to see her smile. She was glad to see me, was in a good mood, smiling and laughing, and seemed to enjoy the experience. I certainly did, too."
Giffords was shot at close range by a gunman who opened fire at her and crowd of bystanders at a political event January 8 outside a supermarket in Tucson, Arizona. Twelve other people also were wounded ,and six individuals were killed, including a federal judge, a young girl and one of Giffords' aides.
The 22-year-old college dropout charged with the shooting, Jared Loughner, was recently declared mentally incompetent to stand trial and was sent back to a Missouri hospital for federal prisoners last month.
The congresswoman spent the first three weeks after the shooting hospitalized in Tucson, then was transferred to TIRR Memorial Hermann in Houston on January 21 to begin rehabilitation.
Weis worked at the Tucson Citizen newspaper for 36 years, including 30 years as photo editor, until the paper closed in 2009.
(Editing by Corrie MacLaggan, Barbara Goldberg and Steve Gorman)