It’s a summer evening in Puerto Rico and Davina Hernandez is playing right field for Puerto Rico’s national softball team. The Bristol, Connecticut native is eligible to play for this all-star contingent because her paternal grandparents were born on the island.
When Hernandez comes off the field, her light-colored hair blowing in the breeze, the team’s fans chant, “rubia, rubia,” the equivalent of “the blonde.” The college student and her teammates are celebrities in the island commonwealth.
Playing softball for Puerto Rico is how Hernandez spent her summers from 2007 to 2010.
Moving forward to the spring of 2016, she is attending the Connecticut Sports Writers’ Alliance annual banquet, where the 29-year-old
former University of Massachusetts player received the organization’s High School Coach of the Year Award, an honor recognizing that in 2015 she guided the Southington High School girls softball team to its second consecutive 24-0 record and state championship.
The transition from an international-caliber athlete to an award-winning coach is only one of the major changes in Davina’s life in the last six years.
Davina Hernandez has lupus, a debilitating auto-immune disease that attacks the muscles and organs. There is no known cure for this chronic disease, which overwhelmingly strikes women, and is two to three times more prevalent among Caribbean and African-Americans then white women.
The former multi-sports standout at Bristol Central High School must take a score of pills each day and faces a constant battle with exhaustion and pain.
“She has been through absolute hell,” said Ken Lipshez, who has covered sports in central Connecticut for several decades and is treasurer of the Sports Writers’ Alliance. Not only has she had to deal with lupus, but has gotten through a lot of tragedies involving family and friends, including the death of a Southington player last summer in a highway accident.
Still, Davina maintains a full life of working full-time as a speech pathologist, coaching both the high school and the CT Lady Knights age-group teams, spending time with family and her boyfriend and especially raising funds for the Lupus Foundation.
Staying active helps her deal with the fatigue that accompanies the disease, she said. Moreover, her motto has become, “I have lupus, but lupus does not have me.”
What distinguishes Hernandez, said Lipshez, who has known and watched her coach as a sports writer for the Meriden Journal-Record, “is that her ability to get along with people of all types, ages and gender is incredible.” Moreover, he added, “she is a lot of fun.”
It took awhile for Davina to learn and accept that she had lupus. She had never heard of the disease before its onset was confirmed, but later learned that two women on her father’s side of the family have lupus, she said.
Diagnosing lupus can be difficult. Its symptoms can vary depending on the individual and often are similar to those of Crohn’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis and Sjogren’s syndrome, Hernandez said.
She suspects that lupus might have been present “all along since high school.” However, she said, “I was strong enough to fight it off.”
Davina recalled having problems in 2007 when the Puerto Rican team was playing in the Pan American, the hemispheric equivalent of the Olympics, in Rio de Janiero. She was feeling exhausted on a regular basis. “I slept 15 to 16 hours at a time,” she said.
Two years later, the team was in Venezuela for a tournament when Hernandez made the mistake of eating a pear in an impoverished neighborhood where the food was “terrible,” she said.
Since then, she says, her life has never been the same. She contracted a bacterial infection that left her bed-ridden three weeks and weakened her system enough to trigger other health issues eventually identified as lupus.
She continued to play softball on a limited basis for the rest of 2009 and 2010, but was totally away from the game in 2011.
It took two years of bouts with pain and other symptoms and numerous tests before it was definitively determined that Hernandez had lupus and a while longer, she said, for her to accept how this malady would alter the rest of her life.
Since a name was put on her constant nemesis, she has figuratively, and sometimes literally, been wearing purple, the theme color for the battle against lupus. She has approached fund-raising and educating the public about this disease with the fervor she once devoted to stealing bases and robbing opponents of home runs as an outfielder during her softball career.
“I have dedicated a large portion of my life” she said “to raising funds regularly for the Connecticut chapter of the National Lupus Foundation.”
Three years ago, Hernandez launched a non-profit organization, the Dream Big with Davina Foundation, which has been involved in activities such as the Lupus Walk in Connecticut and a fund-raiser held last summer in Bristol.
Hernandez also has found the Southington softball program to be very supportive of her cause. Each season, the team schedules a “Put on Purple Game,” with the players wearing purple headbands, shirts and other uniform elements. The game is accompanied by various fund-raising activities such as a raffle and cupcake sales take place.
“Our foundation has contributed over $20,000,” Hernandez said with pride. This money is used for research, education and support groups, including a Spanish-speaking program in New Haven.
In addition, Hernandez speaks to various groups about lupus and recently included comments about its impact on Hispanics during a talk to Latino students at a private school.
On a broader level, she also represents those with the disease on the Lupus Education Awareness Program, panel created by the state legislature in 2011.
Davina Hernandez has been a leader and a winner since her days at Bristol Central High School. She was captain of the soccer team, a state medalist in track and a four-year starter on a softball team that was one of the best in the state and a strong rival to the powerful Southington squad.
Davina also was prom queen, a National Honor Society member and was offered scholarships to several colleges.
However, her life took a new course during the fall of her senior year. Her father was rushed to the hospital, diagnosed with spreading cancer and given six months to live.
Her father’s illness lead Davina to choose attending the University of Massachusetts which was less than an hour from home. It was a difficult time, she recalls. She had hoped that her father would see her play in the Olympics, which did not happen, but although he was frail, he did get to see her play with the Puerto Rican team.
In the ensuing years, her father has endured 29 operations to have tumors removed from various parts of his body and last November he received a liver transplant. Lipshez, who saw the senior Hernandez at a game recently , observed, “He was as jovial as ever.”
At UMass, Hernandez played for a team that annually was among the 20 best in the nation and regularly earned collegiate playoffs. During her college career, she scored 58 runs, hit 4 home runs and stole 16 bases.
Twice, recalls Davina, the UMass women were stymied in their bid for the ultimate collegiate goal, the Softball World Series, by close losses in the preliminary rounds. The Minutewomen’s tormentors, the University of Washington and Northeastern, would both go on to win national titles.
After her sophomore season, Hernandez was invited to the 2007 tryouts for the Puerto Rico national team that were being held in Miami. “They said to bring enough clothes for a couple of months in case you make the team,” she said. So, with two packed suitcases, it was off to Florida and, when she was selected to the team, on to to Puerto Rico’s Olympic Training Center. She did not return home until September, just before college resumed.
Making the team was the first time she had ever been to Puerto Rico, giving her a chance to connect with her Hispanic roots. Her paternal grandparents from Puerto Rico died before she was born, and her father, who was born in the U.S., had played professional basketball on the island in his younger days, she said in a 2007 newspaper interview.
Davina takes pride in her Latina identity, she said, and with all of her backgrounds. Her mother Lisa is of Italian-Armenian descent and is active in the lupus fund-raising.
Playing for Puerto Rico also inspired Hernandez to rev up her fluency in Spanish, which she admits was at least a notch lower than her older sister Krystal, even though she was a member of the Spanish National Honor Society in high school and the aunt who baby-sat for her only spoke Spanish.
Although half the Puerto Rican team was from the states and some only spoke English, all the communication on the field was in Spanish. “The things you don’t know you pick up,” she said.
At times, Hernandez will use her Spanish when providing speech therapy to children for whom that is their native language. She is employed by Creative Interventions and works with youngsters from 18 months to three years of age, specializing in autism, visiting their homes or day care centers.
As for her diet in Puerto Rico, U.S. favorites such as Starbucks coffee and Haagen Dazs ice cream were available, but there also was a lot of traditional Hispanic fare such as rice, beans and chicken instead of hot dogs after games, Hernandez said. This worked out fine, she added, “I grew up eating that stuff.”
It was a family tradition, she said, to dine at Comerio, a popular Puerto Rican restaurant in Hartford. “I have been going there since I was a little kid, my dad went there as a little kid,” she said.
The Puerto Rican national softball team received a lot of coverage in the press and on television, Hernandez said. The fans in Puerto Rico really like and value their national and Olympic teams, she learned.
This attention extended beyond the games. “Rubia” and her teammates were followed every where they went. “It was if they thought I was A-Rod (baseball star Alex Rodriguez) or somebody famous,” she said. “It was a very cool experience.”
During her international career, Hernandez got to play in the Pan American Games, the Canada Cup, the Central American championships and the regional qualifying tournament for the Olympics.
The Puerto Rican team came close to becoming the eighth, or final, team that would play in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the last time that the sport would be part of the international sports festival.
Hernandez’s high school coaching career began in 2012 when she volunteered to coach at Weaver High School in Hartford. Next year, she received an email from longtime Southington softball coach John Bores who suggested that if she was interested in becoming an assistant that she submit an application.
Hernandez got the job in 2013 and the next year, when Bores retired, she became head coach.
Davina takes pride in the fact that Southington, although a longtime softball juggernaut, had not won a state championship for ten years until she arrived.
This spring, the Lady Knights are again in the hunt, which would be the team’s fourth straight and the third with Davina at the helm. This quest is scheduled to begin June 1.
“The girls love her,” Lipshez said, adding that one player described the team as a “sisterhood.”
Although this team is not undefeated like its predecessors and ranked second in the division to Cheshire, “it could still do it,” Lipshez said.