'She was extraordinary': Palatine High student lauded for helping peer who had a seizure in pool

  • Palatine High School junior Emma Zach, right, helped rescue fellow student Cailean Walker when Cailean had a seizure last week while swimming.

    Palatine High School junior Emma Zach, right, helped rescue fellow student Cailean Walker when Cailean had a seizure last week while swimming. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

  • Palatine High School junior Emma Zach helped rescue a fellow student having a seizure last week while swimming.

    Palatine High School junior Emma Zach helped rescue a fellow student having a seizure last week while swimming. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

  • Palatine High School junior Emma Zach, right, helped rescue fellow student Cailean Walker when Cailean had a seizure last week while swimming.

    Palatine High School junior Emma Zach, right, helped rescue fellow student Cailean Walker when Cailean had a seizure last week while swimming. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

  • Palatine High School junior Emma Zach, right, helped rescue fellow student Cailean Walker when Cailean had a seizure last week while swimming.

    Palatine High School junior Emma Zach, right, helped rescue fellow student Cailean Walker when Cailean had a seizure last week while swimming. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 9/17/2021 7:46 PM

As they worked on stroke techniques in the Palatine High School swimming pool late last week, junior Emma Zach could tell something was wrong with classmate Cailean Walker.

The normally ebullient Cailean was quiet, and her face was expressionless.

 

"Something was off," Emma, 16, recalled Friday.

Emma swam just a few feet to Cailean and saw she was having a seizure -- a not-uncommon occurrence for the 17-year-old senior, who has a rare form of epilepsy called Dravet syndrome.

Acting quickly, Emma kept Cailean's face out of the water and held her up until she was taken out of the pool.

"I was really lucky to be right there when it happened," Emma said.

Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211 officials concur. The school board will honor Emma and the staffers involved in the emergency at its October meeting.

"Emma, at only 16, acted with grace and maturity under significant pressure and in doing so helped save the life of her peer," spokeswoman Erin Holmes said.

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The emergency occurred Sept. 9 while Cailean's class was in the pool for physical education. Emma is a gym leader for the P.E. department, assisting kids with disabilities.

She and Cailean, who was wearing a flotation device, were in the deep end of the pool when Cailean experienced the seizure. Although Cailean wasn't sinking, her body tilted forward.

"My first instinct was to get her head out of the water," said Emma, who worked as a lifeguard at a Palatine pool this summer.

Teaching assistant and pool manager John Giuliano jumped in and got Cailean out of the pool. Wellness teacher Jennifer Garofalo was there to help as well, as were other teaching assistants.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The adults got the other students out of the pool safely, too.

While timing the seizure as part of a standard response protocol, they used towels to protect Cailean's head until the seizure ended. The whole episode lasted less than a minute, Garofalo said.

Following protocol, Cailean was taken to the school nurse's office and her mother was called. The teen had another seizure after her mom arrived, but medication was administered and the seizure passed, allowing the pair to go home, Garofalo said.

Holmes praised Garofalo and the other adults for demonstrating "professional calm and control in an extremely intense situation."

Garofalo, in turn, credited Emma.

"Emma was my hero that day," Garofalo said Friday. "She was extraordinary."

The seizures didn't keep Cailean out of the pool for long. She was back in the water with her class the next day and said it's still something she enjoys.

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