Led by his compassion and HSC’s values, a PT student rescued a family in distress

Rafael Saldana-Vazquez and Susan LibbyIt was a moment no adult child ever wants to experience with their elderly parent. Susan Libby’s 92-year-old mother had fallen face-first onto Fort Worth’s busy 7th Street, near the HSC campus, during the high-traffic weekday lunch rush.

A simple misunderstanding between the elderly mother and her two daughters, Libby and her sister, Jan, led to confusion about their meeting place for a quick bite following some medical tests for HSC’s nationally funded health and aging study, in which Libby and her mother have participated for several years.  

Susan was waiting at a table across the street, while Jan had taken their mother to a familiar restaurant on the other side. Transporting mom down a curb to switch locations proved more challenging than it had seemed, and in an instant, their mother fell out of her wheelchair and into the path of oncoming cars.    

The situation could have ended tragically, except for the quick response of a young Uber Eats driver on his way to make a delivery. That compassionate passerby happened to be a physical therapy student working his part-time job between classes at The University of North Texas Health Science Center at Fort Worth. 

Susan has worked at HSC for almost 25 years. In her role as a senior classroom and events technology support provider, she meets a lot of people and is involved with many departments, schools, activities and events around campus and across the community. She’s familiar with quite a few HSC graduate students but hadn’t yet met the young man, Rafael Saldana-Vazquez, who rushed to her mother’s aid that day.  

Saldana plans to complete his Doctor of Physical Therapy degree through the HSC School of Health Professions in 2023. The Wichita Falls, Texas, native was inspired to pursue this career after witnessing the struggles of an uncle who was injured when Saldana was about 12 years old. The accident was so severe, that his uncle was forced to have his legs amputated above his knees. Because he was uninsured, Saldana’s uncle could access only limited services. The family took charge when the prostheses were fitted, determined to help him walk again through slow, supportive progression on a home treadmill.  

“Even as a kid, I remember feeling shocked that someone who needed this type of physical therapy couldn’t get it because he didn’t have insurance,” Saldana said. “This ultimately led me to a PT career. I feel there’s so much I can do to help people like my uncle, and I hope to someday provide pro bono PT services where I can.” 

Saldana remembers seeing Susan and Jan’s mother fall. He had been home and found himself with spare time between classes on a Friday. He was considering whether or not he’d drive deliveries that day, but something told him to clock in.  

He had just picked up an order and was on his way, but immediately pulled over to help the two women in the street. While HSC students practice through classroom scenarios, this was the first time his training had been called on in a real situation.  

“Their mother had hit the ground pretty hard,” he said. “She was bleeding and already swollen above her eye. They were both shaken up and pretty scared.”   

“I was scared, too,” he continued. “It was the first time I had to apply everything I’ve learned, and I didn’t want to make any mistakes.”  

PT students are taught to check vitals when working with older patients and those with underlying health conditions. Saldana started there, reassuring both mother and daughter as he checked heart rate, inquired as to his first patient’s pain levels and followed with questions to assess responsiveness. Knowing they’d need additional help, he flagged down a food supply driver to assist in moving the elderly woman back to her wheelchair. Susan had crossed the street and joined them, and after helping them get safely to the car, Saldana advised the sisters to take their mother directly to a hospital or clinic for further examination.  

The reason, the commitment 

Part of the oath that physical therapy students take when entering the program involves promising to live by a code of respect, compassion and empathy for all individuals, service to others and giving patients and families the highest priority. Saldana says his life goal is to help people in any way possible and make their life “at least a little bit better” through his actions and profession.   

He did make the Uber Eats delivery that day. When he explained why he was late, the customer wholeheartedly agreed that he had done the right thing.  

 He called home afterward to tell his own family what had happened.  

“As a first-generation student, it was important for me to tell my mother how I had applied my education to assist someone,” Saldana said. “My parents have given up so much to help me get an education. It felt so good to know I had made them proud.” 

Gratitude, hugs, tears 

The following Monday, knowing only Saldana’s first name and degree program, Susan set out to find and formally thank him. She had been too rattled the day of the fall to properly express how much his help had meant.  

She peered into classroom windows and asked PT students passing by if they knew a classmate named Rafael. She finally succeeded in tracking him down.

When she reunited with Saldana after class, Susan choked up with emotion.   

“Our mother means the world to us,” she said. “I can’t emphasize enough how kind and respectful Rafael was to our family. He embodies everything that HSC is about, most importantly, service to others and being there for each other.  

“My mother says it was truly a gift from God that he stopped to help us,” she added. “Rafael is the type of student we can all be proud of. He represents HSC well.”  

Pictures from the weekend showed just how injured Susan’s mother was. One eye was swollen shut. Her face was black-and-blue to the neck. By Monday, she was healing, as was Jan, who had pulled her shoulder while initially struggling to assist their mother before Rafael had arrived. They wanted Susan to express their deepest gratitude for everything he had done.  

“Rafael had somewhere he needed to be, he was on a schedule, but he stopped anyway. It made the difference that he was there,” Susan said. 

“I think it’s time in this world to have these kinds of really nice stories,” she added. “Rafael told us that’s the way he would want his mother and grandmother treated if the same thing had happened to them.”  

Saldana said he was moved at the outpouring of emotion from the Libby family. Their gratitude, he said, confirmed that he made the right decision by choosing to pursue physical therapy as a career.  

“It truly touched my heart,” he said. “At the end of the day, the reason we choose any type of health profession is to help those who need it and to be there when they need us most.”  

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