After Palatine High School junior Emma Zach noticed a typically irrepressible classmate was unusually quiet during a physical education swim lesson, she quickly realized the teen was having an epileptic seizure in the deep end of the pool.
Cailean Walker, 17, has Dravet syndrome, a rare form of epilepsy that causes her to experience 10 to 12 seizures each month, sometimes at school.
“Before Cailean got in the pool, she was kind of quiet, and I got the feeling that something was wrong, because she’s always very outgoing, and has a big personality,” said Zach, recalling her Sept. 9 rescue of Walker.
While Walker was wearing a lifesaving belt flotation device, the seizure caused her head to drop forward into the water, prompting Zach to come to the teen’s aid by lifting her face out of the water, and alerting teacher assistant John Giuliano to begin a water rescue.
“It was a group effort from the peer leaders and teachers assistants, because we needed to stay really calm, and we also had to help all of the other kids out of the pool,” said Zach, 16, one of the student leaders in PE class.
Wellness teacher Jennifer Garofalo said COVID-19 disruptions have made it challenging to enlist enough seniors to serve as PE leaders this fall, so she recruited Zach, a former student, even though she is a junior.
While assisting adaptive PE students in the pool can make some student leaders nervous, teens like Zach who embrace the challenge of teaching swim lessons and other activities “are helping these students have opportunities they can enjoy for the rest of their lives,” Garofalo said.
Despite the bulk of her high school years being interrupted by pandemic restrictions, Zach, who worked as a lifeguard last summer, said she is excited to be back on campus this fall and enjoys supporting students like Walker, as well as students in the PE class with Down syndrome, autism and other cognitive disabilities.
“The kids in adaptive PE have really fun personalities, and it’s so rewarding when you get these little wins,” Zach said.
“When everything was on Zoom, I really missed the connection with my friends, but now everything is back in full swing, and we’re adjusting back to normal,” Zach said, adding: “It’s a bit of a challenge, and we still can’t really see each other’s faces because of the masks, but we need to keep everyone safe.”