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Conversation with Aluf Benn
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College students stop to hug him on campus. Children ask him for autographs in restaurants. Strangers want to shake his hand at gas stations.
Nearly everywhere he goes, people recognize Daniel Hernandez as the burly, soft-spoken intern who helped save Gabrielle Giffords' life the day the congresswoman was shot in the head in January.
That was three months ago. Since then, Hernandez, a 21-year-old University of Arizona student, has been interviewed by hundreds of journalists from all over the world. He has traveled the country to receive awards and accolades, including being an invited guest of President Barack Obama for the State of the Union address. He set up a website to handle the constant requests for interviews.
But even as he continues to accept speaking engagements and make public appearances to talk about the shooting, the typically open and outgoing Hernandez has withdrawn emotionally from those closest to him, say his family and friends. His friends and family worry that in packing his schedule so full - leaving little time for rest - Hernandez is hiding from the emotions he has kept bottled up since a gunman shot 19 people, killing six, outside a Safeway on Jan. 8.
Although Hernandez was not physically wounded, he experienced something horrific that crisp Saturday morning. The tranquil shopping center near Tucson was transformed into a scene resembling a battlefield. Thirteen wounded people were bleeding. Six people were slain. Among the dead was Christina-Taylor Green, a 9-year-old girl.
In disregard for his own safety, Hernandez rushed to Giffords' side, holding her head up so she could breathe and covering her gunshot wound with his hand. He stayed with her until help arrived and then rode with her in the ambulance to the hospital.
"I worry about him all the time," said his sister, Consuelo, 18. "Psychologically, I know he has changed. Things like that you will never forget."
Horrible trauma is very difficult for the brain to process, said Dr. Gabrielle Lawrence, a psychologist in Scottsdale. She said many people subsequently struggle with severe grief and post-traumatic stress disorder.
People, especially men, often get "really busy" to avoid thinking about what they experienced, said Lawrence, who does not know Hernandez.
While normal, she said, such behavior can be a sign that Hernandez needs help.
Hernandez said he is getting the help he needs, meeting with a grief counselor.
"I'm doing as well as can be expected," he said. "It was very difficult, as you can imagine, everything that happened on that day."
Hernandez, the oldest of three children, grew up in a modest home in a mostly Hispanic neighborhood on the south side of Tucson. The family spoke English and Spanish at home.
His father, also named Daniel Hernandez, grew up in California and is of Mexican descent. He made a living as a construction worker and a handyman until he fell off a dumpster a year ago on a job and shattered his left ankle. He hasn't worked since.
Daniel's mother, Consuelo Hernandez, an immigrant from Nogales, Sonora, stayed home to raise the children. She is known for the beautiful cakes she bakes.
As a child, Hernandez was "superdotado," Spanish for exceptionally smart, his father said.
"He was scary when he was 5 or 6 years old," the elder Hernandez said. "The things he would come up with. He would just blow us away."
When Daniel was about 5, he decided he wanted to become a doctor, like two of his uncles in Mexico.
"We were always telling him about his uncles and how being a doctor is one of the best ways you can help people," his father said.
Hernandez graduated from Sunnyside High School in Tucson in 2008. During his junior and senior years, he participated in Health Occupations Students of America, a national program that prepares students for careers in the health-care field.
Cathy Monroe, a registered nurse who has taught at Sunnyside since 1992, remembers Hernandez as one of the brightest students she has ever had.
On his own, Hernandez learned the techniques for drawing blood and testing urine and then took top honors in statewide and national laboratory-skills tests.
In the program, Hernandez also learned first-aid skills that he put to use when Giffords was shot, applying pressure to her wound to stop the bleeding and helping her to sit upright so she wouldn't choke on the blood.
"I think the important thing, he also was talking to her," said Monroe, who spoke with Hernandez in February when he was honored by the Sunnyside Unified School District Board. "He cared about her. He was asking her: 'Can you squeeze my hand? Can you hear me?' So in a certain way, he was keeping her aware of what was going on so that he could give good information to the paramedics when they arrived."
After high school, Hernandez enrolled at UA intending to study medicine. But that summer, he volunteered for Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign. The experience changed his life and set him on a new course, one that would lead him to Giffords' side the morning of the shooting.
"I realized I loved talking to people and learning how campaigning worked," said Hernandez, a political-science major who plans to pursue a career in public service after he graduates in 2012.
This semester, instead of attending classes, he is getting full-time credit by working as an intern in Giffords' office and for the Arizona Students' Association, a governmental organization that lobbies on behalf of students attending the state's three public universities.
And he is hoping to continue his nascent political career. He and another candidate for student-body president were disqualified in March for having an excessive number of campaigning violations. Appeals are being heard by the student government's supreme court.
Hernandez has managed several political campaigns on campus. Last year, he also ran the successful re-election campaign for state Rep. Steve Farley, a Democrat from Tucson.
Farley, whose district covers downtown Tucson and abuts the university, wanted a student to run his campaign. Someone suggested Hernandez.
Farley remembers how impressed he was with Hernandez during the job interview.
"I hired him on the spot," Farley said. "I saw in him the kind of responsibility and trustworthiness I knew was going to be very important. . . . Throughout the campaign, it became very clear his work ethic was incredible and (so was) his selflessness. You know walking door to door in Tucson in July is not an easy thing to do."
As a member of the Arizona Students' Association, Hernandez also researched, drafted and testified in support of a bill in the state Legislature aimed at getting more students to vote by requiring colleges and universities to provide more information on campus about voter registration and elections.
"A lot of people might have some trepidation," said state Rep. Matt Heinz, D-Tucson, who sponsored the measure. "He did not."
The legislation was adopted in 2010.
As he managed Farley's campaign and worked on the legislation, Hernandez also began volunteering on Giffords' re-election campaign, going door to door in Tucson to help drum up votes. In November, she narrowly won.
After that, Hernandez was hired to work as an intern in her Tucson office. On Jan. 2, the day before he started, he tweeted: "Excited for my first day at the @Rep_Giffords office tomorrow for my internship!"
'Mom, I'm all right'
On the morning of Jan. 8, a Saturday, Giffords was holding one of her frequent "Congress on Your Corner" events. It was scheduled for 10 a.m. at a Safeway in an upscale strip mall on Oracle Road.
Hernandez volunteered to help at the event, which provided a chance for the public to ask the congresswoman questions in an informal setting. Hernandez planned to meet Giffords and other staff members at the Safeway.
But first he promised to swing by his parents' house in south Tucson to pick up his younger sister, Consuelo, who wanted to tag along. Consuelo was waiting for him that morning, but he overslept and didn't show up.
A little after 10 a.m. the phone rang. Mrs. Hernandez answered. It was Daniel.
"Mom," he said. "I'm all right. Something's happened to Gabrielle. But I'm all right."
Then he hung up.
His parents didn't know what to make of the call. His father started flipping through channels on the TV. That is when they learned that Giffords had been shot at the Safeway and several other people had been wounded. But details were sketchy.
"I was clicking through every channel, back and forth, back and forth, trying to get more information," his father said.
They tried calling, but Hernandez didn't answer his cellphone.
His mother became hysterical.
"To put it mildly, she was upset. Her voice was louder. There were tears in her eyes," his father said as he recounted her panicked reaction: "You know how Daniel is. He could be shot, and he's not telling us."
Covered in blood
Hernandez made one other call that morning, reaching Farley, a close friend of Giffords, as he drove with his wife and daughters. They were on their way to an event at Kartchner Caverns when Farley took the call on the car's speaker phone.
Farley recalled saying something cheerful like: "How ya doing, Daniel? What's up?"
Hernandez cut him off. "Steve. Gabby's been shot. We need to get a hold of the family. Get to the hospital as soon as you can."
Farley learned later that Hernandez had called from the ambulance as he was holding Giffords' head.
Farley, just a few miles from home, headed directly to University Medical Center. As he pulled up, he saw Hernandez standing near the driveway of the ambulance bay, wearing a dark argyle sweater.
"He was just standing there alone, covered head to toe in blood," Farley said.
Farley walked up to Hernandez and gave him a big hug. Then Farley whispered in his ear.
"Daniel," Farley said. "You've got to take care of yourself. This is something really big."
Yet to open up
The night of the shooting, Hernandez went to his parents' house instead of his apartment near campus after spending the day at the hospital. It was about 2 in the morning when he arrived. His parents were waiting for him.
But Hernandez didn't want to talk.
"He said, 'Mom, I'm tired. I just want to go to bed,' " his father recalled.
The next morning, Hernandez didn't want to talk either.
Three months have passed, and Hernandez has yet to open up to anyone in his family. That is unusual, his parents say, because Hernandez calls home every day, sometimes several times a day, just to check in. His parents are afraid to bring it up.
"I would say mentally he has changed quite a bit," his father said one recent evening, sitting in a restaurant near downtown Tucson with his wife at his side. "No, we don't go back to that day. It didn't happen."
Downplays being a hero
The day after the shooting, newspapers and radio and television stations from all over the world were calling Hernandez for interviews. Farley's wife, Kelly Paisley, went to Hernandez's house to help him handle all of the requests. Paisley took the Hernandez family to a hotel for a week to avoid reporters knocking on their door. Just in the first week, Hernandez gave more than 260 interviews, Paisley said.
Many of the requests came from Spanish newspapers and television stations in Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America. In the Spanish media, Hernandez became known as "el h�roe hispano," the Hispanic hero.
But over and over, Hernandez has downplayed his own actions, shunning the label. Instead, he has turned the spotlight on the paramedics and doctors, calling them the real heroes.
In much the same way, Hernandez also downplays concerns about himself.
He said he has not experienced nightmares or insomnia, but he has noticed he wakes up tired and feels extremely exhausted.
Hernandez has many friends who offered their support after the shooting, said David Martinez III, a close friend and governmental-affairs director for the Arizona Students' Association.
He also is a "very strong person," Martinez said.
Still, Martinez said, Hernandez does not talk about the shooting.
And friends have noticed how busy Hernandez has become, though they say it's hard to tell the difference because Hernandez always has kept busy. They realize, though, that he has been through a horrible experience.
"He's coping well, but I do worry about him a lot," said Elma Delic, 21, a senior.
While visiting the Capitol in February for the ASA's annual lobby day, Hernandez ran into Tom Chabin, a Democratic state representative from Flagstaff.
Chabin, who has known Hernandez for several years, asked how he was doing.
"I'm doing fine," Hernandez said, clearly uncomfortable with the question.
Chabin looked directly into Hernandez's eyes, put his hand on his shoulder and told him he needed to take care of himself.
Chabin said later that he also worries about Hernandez.
"My concerns really weren't directed at Daniel but to a human being that witnessed and participated heroically in a very traumatic event where he saw his boss, a U.S. rep who he admires greatly, shot in the head and witnessed the death of others, including a small child," Chabin said.
Hernandez brushed aside the suggestion that he has kept himself so busy since the shooting to avoid coping with the trauma.
"It's not healthy to just ignore what happened, so I am not keeping busy to just ignore it," he said. "I'm just keeping busy for having to catch up with all I've missed."
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