Even as a junior in high school, Emily Zarback was confident she knew precisely what she planned to study in college—and where.

A native of Orangevale, a town about 20 miles northeast of Sacramento, she said she chose Chico State for its proximity to home, natural beauty, and its highly regarded School of Nursing (which was just ranked in the top 20 in the state).

Zarback’s interest in medicine was cultivated during high school. During her junior and senior years, she volunteered in the trauma and medical surgical and cardiac telemetry units at Mercy San Juan Medical Center in nearby Carmichael. From delivering lab specimens and sharpening her administrative skills to restocking medical equipment and bringing food and water to patients, this volunteer work solidified her calling.

“You’re helping people when they’re most vulnerable,” said Zarback, now a freshman pre-nursing major. “You don’t have to be giving them medication to make a big impact on their life. You could be passing a sandwich to them or passing out ice water. From the little things you do up to the big things, you’re making an impact on someone’s life.”

Little did she know her knowledge would give her the opportunity to save someone’s life last month, well before her nursing courses at Chico State even began.

During her senior year in high school, she continued her determined career march by applying to join the San Juan Unified School District’s Medical Assisting Career Technical Education program. Despite a 25-minute drive twice a week at the end of her school day, Zarback strengthened her resolve to learn as much as she could about nursing.

As a volunteer medical assistant, Zarback’s experience only added to her growing confidence. She learned more about the nursing and medical fields, as well as how to check patients’ vital signs, input patient data, assist with exams, and schedule appointments.

She was also trained to administer CPR and use an automated external defibrillator (AED). She brought those skills and training, coupled with her deepening love for patient care, to Chico State, where she’ll soon apply to the University’s School of Nursing.

Late last month, Zarback was seated in Sutter Dining Hall, finishing dinner with her boyfriend, when a nearby student stumbled into their table. With eyes rolled back, the student lost consciousness and Zarback reached out her arms to catch them.

“I thought, ‘This is my patient now. I need to perform what I know and do the best I can to help them,’” Zarback recalled, a quiet confidence bubbling beneath the surface of her caring demeanor and gentle smile.

Emily Zarback holds the Presidential Medallion she received from Chico State President Gayle Hutchinson.
“[As a nurse], you’re helping people when they’re most vulnerable … From the little things you do up to the big things, you’re making an impact on someone’s life.”

Zarback and a handful of nearby students acted quickly to help. While one student dialed 9-1-1, a pair of other students helped her set their fellow freshman gently to the floor to avoid a head injury. Noting the student’s face going pale and lips turning blue, Zarback administered CPR, steadily pulsing her hands on the student’s chest exactly as she had been trained. She felt like time was passing rapidly but after 15 to 20 seconds of compressions, the student gasped for air.  She and a few bystanders set the student, who continued to fall in and out of consciousness, in a chair, and Zarback supported the student’s head with her hands and waited with a resident advisor for paramedics to arrive.

It was truly a team effort, driven by Zarback’s calm leadership and quick thinking.

“I didn’t have to ask anyone to call 9-1-1,” she said. “It was really cool that everyone stepped up and worked together to help.”

Since arriving on campus in August, Zarback said she’s enjoyed Chico State’s friendly, community-based atmosphere and attitudes about bystander intervention.

“When Wildcats help fellow Wildcats, in a way we’re saying, ‘You’re not alone,’ and ‘I can help you,’” Zarback said.

But that sense of caring doesn’t have to be in a medical sense, she notes, adding that coming to the aid of campus community members can also take the form of tutoring, listening to one another, participating in clubs, and myriad volunteer opportunities in the wake of November’s Camp Fire.

This week, Chico State President Gayle Hutchinson celebrated Zarback’s heroics by presenting her with a Presidential Medallion, a rare honor awarded in “important and exceptional moments.”

Student Emily Zarback smiles with Chico State President Gayle Hutchinson.
Chico State President Gayle Hutchinson (right) presented pre-nursing freshman Emily Zarback with a Presidential Medallion for her “heroic effort and saving another and embodying that Wildcat spirit.”

“Not only are we very proud of you for your heroic effort and saving another and embodying that Wildcat spirit,” Hutchinson told Zarback during Monday’s brief ceremony, “but also for your potential for leadership in the future.”

Though Zarback is not yet certain which area of nursing she’d like to pursue (her positive experience at Mercy San Juan Medical Center has her considering a return to the trauma medical and surgical unit), she said she’d like to add to her value as a nurse and become bilingual. She’s currently enrolled in first-year Spanish and is contemplating a Spanish minor.

“I’ve been in so many situations where someone only spoke Spanish, and I didn’t know how to communicate with them,” she said, her voice filled with equal parts compassion and conviction. “I want to remove the language barrier, especially in the hospital.”

Humbled to be recognized for actions that just came to her by instinct, Zarback said she hopes the attention can spur others to be aware of their surroundings and their peers.

For anyone not wearing scrubs or studying medical textbooks, Zarback is confident we can all help others by preparing ourselves.

“If you know how to perform a skill or you can help someone in any way possible, do it. If you can catch someone who’s unconscious, do it,” she said. “You may not know CPR, but anything you do is going to help, even if it’s calling 9-1-1. If you know a skill, do it.”

The Associated Students, in partnership with the Wildcat Recreation Center, is hosting several CPR and First Aid Trainings this spring and spots are still available. More details and registration can be found on the AS website.