Daniel Hernandez Jr., Gabrielle Giffords' Hero Intern, On Anniversary Of Tucson Shootings

Lying on his bedroom floor at age 5, Daniel Hernandez Jr. thought he was going to die.

He'd cracked his head while jumping on the bed. Blood streamed down the sides of his face. His mother rushed him to the hospital, where a nurse held him in her arms, repeating, "Everything will be OK." That nurse, said Hernandez, made him realize what he wanted to do with his life -- help people. Fifteen years later, he proved it.

On Jan. 8, 2011, in Tucson, Ariz., Hernandez found himself playing the role of caretaker in a national tragedy when a deranged gunman opened fire at an event featuring the local congresswoman, Gabriele Giffords. Nineteen people were shot. Six would die.

It was Hernandez's first week as an intern for Giffords. With a few medical emergency lessons under his belt, he attended to fallen victims, checking their necks and wrists for a pulse. Then he realized Giffords had been hit.

"He ran towards to the bullets, rather than away," said longtime family friend Kelly Paisley. "When you're as altruistic as Daniel, there's really no second thought. He ran towards the bullets because he knew he could help."

Hernandez saw the entrance wound on the left side of Giffords' skull, but couldn't tell whether the bullet had exited. He held her in his lap and talked with her, asking her to squeeze his hand if she could hear him. She squeezed softly, but was unable to speak. He tried to staunch Giffords' blood loss with his bare hands, then, worried about infection, asked people nearby for something cleaner. Medics eventually rushed Giffords to the hospital.

Many say Hernandez saved Giffords' life. President Barack Obama is among those who have hailed him as a national hero.

Hernandez said he's not a hero. He just did what he had to do.

"I understand why people say it, but I still reject it," he said.

Almost a year after that morning, he met me in a sleek hotel room on Manhattan's Upper West Side, paid for by one of the many media outlets itching to talk with the hero.

He joked about his chic hotel room and how he's had to grow accustomed to the strange side-effects of his unexpected 15 minutes.

Hernandez, hardworking son of a Mexican immigrant and a Mexican-American construction worker, is still a student at the University of Arizona. But he now juggles schoolwork, press events and speaking engagements alongside his new elected position as school board member in Tucson -- not to mention the the normal hurly-burly of being 21. He wakes up at 5 a.m. to get it all done.

"I have a lot of the same worries as most people my age," he said. "Like most 21-year-olds I have no idea what I'll be doing in six months. School board doesn’t pay, so I need to find a job in Tucson too."

Hernandez described himself as "very random" (something he likes about himself) and a "terrible procrastinator" (something he doesn't). He also said he can't say no to friends.

"They are constantly upset with me for not seeing them enough, but I do my best to squeeze in 11 p.m. dinners at the end of a busy day if I can," he said.

Hernandez's heroism, his eloquence, and emotional maturity have made him a symbol for different groups. Democrats, the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, Arizonans, and Latinos all invoke Hernandez.

He said being a symbol can be difficult.

"I try not to let myself be defined by one thing, and I can't really be a symbol for all of these things," he said. "Whether it's I'm Latino, or I'm LGBT, or that I happened to be there on January 8th. I just have to focus on being the best Daniel Hernandez that I can be."

Like a politician, Hernandez stays on topic: education reform. At every turn in our conversation, no matter the topic, he meanders back to it. He said he's devoting his life to the cause.

"Education has always been a great equalizer," he said. "It doesn't matter what your background is -- if you have a good education, if you work hard, you can get ahead."

Hernandez said he also loves people and loves to laugh. He seeks out conversations with strangers and said one of his favorite things is "just getting to know folks."

"When I get into a cab, I just can't help myself," he said. "I want to know who the driver is, where he's from, how he thinks -- I just love it."

Hernandez said "Parks and Recreation," a sitcom on NBC starring comedienne Amy Poehler, makes him laugh harder than anything. From gritty small government drama to a hard-working and benevolent female lead, the show has everything he loves.

Strong women, starting with his own mother, have always been his main inspiration, he said. Before working for Giffords, Hernandez worked for Hillary Clinton's 2008 presidential campaign. He said he identifies most with women who overcome adversity, including comedienne Maria Bamford, who struggled with severe anxiety, and Welsh singer Shirley Bassey, who faced tragic setbacks in her singing career.

"I'm drawn to people who are fighters and hard workers and workaholics," he said.

Giffords, he said, represents the pinnacle of these traits.

"She's definitely a fighter, whether for her own life, or standing up for people in southern Arizona," Hernandez said. "There's no question Gabby's a fighter."

Despite all the praise for Hernandez, there are detractors.

"It's hard being a Hispanic in Arizona, is all I'll say," said Paisley, his family friend. "I just stopped reading the blogs. There are very very few, but Daniel just brushes it off. He just brushes it off."

Hernandez said his "high name recognition" came with "high negatives" when he ran for school board.

"When I was walking door to door, a few people said, 'We know you from watching TV, but that doesn't mean you're qualified to run the schools,'" Hernandez said.

He said he's been accused of letting his fame go to his head. He hopes that's not the case and those who know him said it isn't.

Paisley said Hernandez's innate kindness and his "ability to stay true to who he is" have impressed her most in the last year.

"If you met his whole family, you’d understand why he is how he is," she said. "I think he's just been raised to be kind."

"I really still don't think of myself as a hero," Hernandez said as our interview was winding down. "I was just a 20-year-old intern who just happened to be in the right place and the right time. I hope to dedicate myself to being a true hero some day, by doing something positive like Gabby -- by helping others."