By SHELLY WILKISON
Twenty years ago, he learned that he had diabetes. Immediately, doctors prescribed pills and insulin and Izzy Hernandez believed the medications were keeping the disease under control. As the years passed, most days he felt fine.
Then last summer on a family vacation to El Paso, he noticed a blister on the big toe of his right foot.
“When we got home, I went to the doctor,” he said. “Four days later, I was sent to the hospital and gangrene had already set in. They had to remove my toe.”
Hernandez, who has spent a lifetime restoring cars, found himself at a crossroads. While doctors said they would watch closely in the weeks ahead to see if the disease progressed to the other toes, Hernandez said he wasn’t willing to wait and see.
“I asked where the safe place was to cut and remove it all,” Hernandez recalled. “They said to cut below the knee, and I said ‘let’s do it.’ I wanted them to do it right away.”
Four days after his leg was amputated, Hernandez went back to work at his beloved LY Eagle Custom Paint and Body Shop in Liberty Hill.
“I wanted to be here. This is my life, and I begged my wife to bring me to the shop,” he said.
Born and raised in El Paso, Hernandez doesn’t remember a day when he thought about doing anything other than working on cars.
At age 12, he asked the owners of a body shop that he passed on the walk to school if he could do some odd jobs, cleaning or anything else that was needed. He wanted to be around the cars and watched in amazement as battered vehicles became new again.
Hernandez said he netted about $1 a week, but it was never about the money.
“I dreamed of owning my own shop,” he said.
In business in Liberty Hill seven years, Hernandez said he worked for auto body repair businesses in El Paso, California and Georgia before settling in the area.
He said he discovered Liberty Hill on trips from Georgia to El Paso, where family members still reside. The journey took him west on State Highway 29.
“Seeing the happy faces of my customers when we deliver a car is what I enjoy best about this work,” Hernandez said.
LY Eagle Custom Paint and Body Shop specializes in automotive collision repair, but it is also a superior classic and custom restoration facility. Restoring classic cars is a passion for Hernandez.
While he misses being able to do the physical labor on the vehicles in his shop, he is completely involved in every job. He starts by developing a plan for the customer and ensures that every step is carried out carefully by employees, who share his passion for excellence and his keen sense of detail.
Hernandez said he treats every vehicle as if it were his own and customers bring their prized classics to Liberty Hill from across the country because they trust him. Every year he continues to gain that trust by earning additional certifications and attending special training in his field. The desire to learn more and improve his craft is a constant driving force.
A short time after his leg was amputated, Hernandez was told that he was virtually blind. Once again spurred by the diabetes, blood had pooled behind his eyeballs, reducing his vision to 50 percent.
“They opened it and let the blood out, then put in glass bubbles to give me vision in the left eye, and it saved about 50 percent of my vision,” he said.
“I just never thought something like this could happen to me,” Hernandez said of his struggles with diabetes.
Although he said everyone in his family suffered from the disease, which is often hereditary, he didn’t take the threat seriously.
“That’s the main problem with everyone. They don’t take it seriously,” he said. “People keep drinking and smoking even after they know they have it. This disease kills you slowly, and takes a little piece of you at a time.”
At age 58, Hernandez said he is determined to live. He follows an extensive regimen of diet and medications, which includes four shots of insulin every day.
He also does exercises from his chair at the office. Using his arms, he lifts and lowers himself from the seated position, and also builds upper body strength using a rubber band and various weights.
Almost a year after his leg was amputated, Hernandez was fitted with a prosthesis. For some time, he said he had to wear it only for short periods of time each day as he built his strength.
While he still requires the use of his walker to give him balance and stability, he said every day he sees progress. In fact, last week he was able to wear the prosthesis all day long while at work. He said he waited until he returned home to rest his leg and remove the prosthesis.
“In about two weeks, I think I’ll be able to walk without using this walker,” he said with a smile.
“I realize now how important it is to take care of yourself,” he said. “To have all the parts working is important, and missing one part means a lot.”
Through the many health struggles, Hernandez said he focused on getting stronger for his family.
He described his wife of 30 years, Lupe Hernandez, as his reason for living.
“She is my power to move on. Without her, I could do nothing. She and my son are my power,” he said. Hernandez’ son is a social worker for the military and works in Killeen.
“God gave me one more chance and I want to live,” he said.