Steven Salazar was close to his dream of becoming a regional airline pilot when he was seriously injured in an accident involving a Cessna C-172.
Although he had survived the crash Aug. 18, he couldn’t help but feel as if the life he had worked so hard to build as a flight instructor in Dallas was stripped away from him.
The 26-year-old recalled the anger and disappointment he felt inside the rehab hospital room back in his hometown of Victoria. He underwent surgery for a broken back and broken bones in his legs, including his heel. He also suffered nerve damage. He grew accustomed to his new routine, and the hospital became his second home.
While his body healed its shattered bones, his dog, Cooper, a mini Australian shepherd, was allowed to visit every evening. Another daily visitor was his grandfather, Robert Rodriguez.
And after he was discharged, Rodriguez drove him to Post Acute Medical Rehabilitation Hospital of Victoria for outpatient therapy five days a week.
“He has been my right-hand man, my caretaker, my motivator, my personal comedian, my cameraman during physical therapy, my chauffeur and the best grandpa I could ever ask for,” he said Friday during a ceremony celebrating his induction into the Wall of Fame at PAM Rehab Hospital.
Soon a framed photo of Salazar smiling next to a plane will join four others on the wall, each patient with their own inspiring story of recovery.
At the lectern, before the cake was served, he said recovery would have been even harder without his strong support network.
His parents, Barbara and Frank Salazar Sr., said there was no doubt that their middle child would get through this. “He’s always been one for adventure,” she said. “Nothing holds him back.”
“Once he gets his mind on something, he does it,” added his older brother, Frank Salazar Jr.
Steven Salazar recently completed a Jingle Bell 5K Run sponsored by the hospital and afterward helped pack 150 care packages for military troops.
“He was always here working his tail off,” said Dion Ruiz, his physical therapist at Post Acute Medical. “He is the perfect patient because he really buys into what we tell him and he trusts us.”
Salazar still has physical therapy and is working to improve his gait.
Amid the crowd of more than 50 gathered in the hospital hallway was his friend Niko Ramirez, who was diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury and left unable to walk or talk after a 2013 motorcycle accident.
Doriann Kraatz, Ramirez’s mother, said Salazar was consistently caring for Niko immediately after his accident, even driving them to medical appointments.
She said it was in a doctor’s waiting room a few years later that she remembers encouraging her son’s friend to pursue his own career dreams.
She learned that Salazar wanted to be a pilot and was looking into classes in Waco. “I said, ‘Niko is fine. He is stable,’” she recalled.
Salazar said that going through the experience with Niko and his family taught him to never give up hope.
While his career plans may change, he said, he is trying to stay focused on being healthy and enjoying life every day: “I want to cherish the time I have with my friends and family and slow down a little.”
The online version of this story has been updated to correct the name of the award to Wall of Fame.