Gabby Giffords: What I learned fighting for my life. And why it can help America now.

Gabrielle Giffords, Opinion contributor

With growing and necessary isolation, economic uncertainty and looming deaths that make us feel dread and anxiety for our loved ones and ourselves, these are harder times than many of us have faced in our lives.

I know something about fear and uncertainty. A bullet to the head one sunny morning in Arizona almost a decade ago left me first fighting for my life and then fighting to build my life anew. But in experiencing the worst — and in facing fear, the unknown, pain, and the deep desire to move forward — I have learned a lot about resiliency and what it takes to endure. I want to share what I’ve learned in my journey in the hopes that it may help others find their way forward, too:

►Have faith in first responders, doctors and nurses. From the moment the medics arrived to lift me off the pavement where I’d been shot, to the time I still spend with therapists, working on my speech and use of my right arm and leg, the dedication, fearlessness and talent of medical professionals has been a gift and my guiding light. There were days when pain and frustration made it hard to carry on, but their professionalism never waned, and I never stopped following their lead. We need them now, and they need us.

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►Listen to experts and find solutions. Because of the progress my medical team has helped me make over the years, I’ve gotten to take on a new role as an advocate for gun violence prevention. I’ve learned the value of putting facts over ideology, of finding creative solutions. I’ve sat with Republicans and Democrats and know that when lives are at stake, they can find ways to move forward, together. We need our leaders to respect scientists and public health experts more than ever and to act on their best ideas. 

We will need each other

►Rely on each other. In my darkest days, my friends filled my hospital room with pictures of beautiful vistas and my favorite places — reminding me of the world outside I aspired to rejoin. Jimmy Hatch, a dear friend and retired Navy SEAL Special Warfare Operator, exemplifies for me the healing power of these connections. After he was grievously injured in combat, I spent time with him at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. After I was shot, he came to my hospital bed. We talked about rehabilitation and recovery, pain and determination. Three years later, he joined me as we jumped out of an airplane into the skies over my beloved Arizona.

Former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords sings National Anthem at dedication for the January 8th Memorial at El Presidio Park in Tucson, Ariz., on Jan. 8, 2018.

►Turn to service. Service can take so many forms. Check in on elderly neighbors or those needing a little attention (from a safe distance of course!). Make a donation to a food bank or an emergency fund. Send a text to a friend who is ill, or caring for someone, or simply struggling to be home alone. Each gesture, however small, is a stitch in the quilt that keeps our communities connected.

There’s a quote attributed to Maya Angelou that I’ve thought about a lot over these years. “I can be changed by what happens to me, but I refuse to be reduced by it.” These are hard days. They will get harder. We will lose far too many lives. Some of us will be physically weak. Some will be mourning loved ones. Some will be fighting back from economic insecurity.

We can emerge stronger

It is staggering to contemplate. But as one who has been, metaphorically and literally, brought to my very knees by a shocking blow, I know the power of insisting on our own strength, our own potential. And I know the power of Americans standing together — not just to endure this, but to emerge from it stronger.

In the days after almost being killed, I lay in a hospital room not fully conscious, relying on a ventilator to breathe, as so many are at this moment. My husband Mark Kelly tells me that when he held my hand, my fingers found his wedding ring, touching it and twisting it again and again. My memories are hazy, but I think I was trying to send Mark a message of hope. I think I was trying to focus not on the pain and challenge that were to follow, but on the connection between us.

Our connections to each other bring strength, hope and resilience. It is my hope for my fellow Americans and all humanity that we find our strength and our belief that we can get through this and rebuild, together.

Gabrielle Giffords is a former congresswoman from Arizona and co-founder of Giffords: Courage to Fight Gun Violence. She survived an assassination attempt in January 2011 that took the lives of six people.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Gabrielle Giffords: How to cope with fear in coronavirus pandemic