The college intern credited with saving congresswoman Gabrielle Gifford's life, is talking for the first time about what happened after they parted ways at the hospital.
Daniel Hernandez, 21, has had to tell and re-tell the story of how he elevated Giffords, put pressure to her wound and kept her engaged, more times than he can count.
"I don't have nightmares. I don't have the traumatic flashbacks that some of the others have- but when I do talk about it, I remember the gunshots," he said.
The rest of us, cannot forget the shocking images.
Giffords, shot in the head, laid-out on a stretcher, with Hernandez, the intern only five days on the job, holding her hand.
"My main priority was to keep her engaged, keep her calm. I kept asking her questions like 'If you understand the ambulance is coming, squeeze my hand,' and she'd squeeze my hand," he said.
Hernandez stayed in a zone, and by her side.
"There are still people to this day who never talk about it at all," he said.
What you've probably never heard until now is how once they got to the hospital and she was rushed into triage, he was stripped of his cell phone and told to wait to be debriefed by detectives.
"I was cut off from all communications from people. I heard people talking in the ambulance bay, saying she had passed away. Then they put me in a sort of isolation area so I could be asked questions by detectives," Hernandez said.
For seven hours, he thought she was dead.
"We also heard someone say the guy who looks like Santa Claus died," Hernandez said.
He assumed they were talking about Gifford's right-hand man, Ron Barber.
"Being under the impression that not only the congresswoman, but also her district director had passed away, was a very difficult thing," he said.
Hernandez eventually learned that while six people died, Barber and Giffords, survived.
But he didn't get to go home and regroup, reflect, breathe.
He was inundated with a blitz of nonstop interview requests, with people hungry to hear his story.
"Having to talk about it and go through it and process it out loud, even though it was in public, was actually the way I ended up being able to cope with everything," Hernandez said.
It changed his life. He not only got to meet the president, but was called a hero by the commander in chief.
First shy to accept the title, Hernandez said he's now learning to take the compliments.
"People kept coming up to me saying how helpful it was in their recovery to hear my story. I've also learned to let them share theirs as well," he said.
What he didn't expect was being used as a poster boy for all the other groups he happens to represent - Hispanics and homosexuals.
"I laugh a little bit. I never saw myself being in this role as a role model," he said.
But he'll take it, if it'll help him change things.
Hernandez said for people to even question wether the shooting was politically motivated, is a sign our discourse needs to improve.
"It's not something that's gonna happen overnight. It's something that's gonna take us as citizens to get more involved," he said.
Hernandez said we should all look to Giffords for inspiration.
"Try to follow her model and make sure we're trying to not just speak about civility, but also act in it," he said.
He didn't want to speculate about Giffords' political future as many have been quick to do.
"Quite frankly - I don't really care. The thing I care about most is her as a person," he said.
And he wouldn't go there either - about the justice for accused shooter Jared Loughner.
"I am not a lawyer. I am not a judge. It's not my place to say how he should be punished," he said.
Hernandez hopes we'll be moved to act on the good we saw come of this tragedy.
"People often think kindness is something that comes easy, something that's a random act. But honestly, kindness is something we all need to work towards and actively think about," he said.
Hernandez just won a seat on the Sunnyside School District down in Tucson after losing the race for student body president at the University of Arizona. He's set to graduate next year and promises to pursue his passion as an advocate for education.
Wednesday, May 22 2013 9:38 PM EDT2013-05-23 01:38:14 GMT
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