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Sac State Nursing student hailed as a hero for her work during mass casualty event

Sac State Nursing student and ROTC member Vanessa Soltani (far left) suddenly was called into action when lightning struck soldiers training outside, killing one and injuring nine others, while she and other students from around the country were attending a monthlong summer internship at Fort Gordon in Georgia. (Photo courtesy of Vanessa Soltani)
Sac State Nursing student and ROTC member Vanessa Soltani (right) practicing a medical procedure on another intern during a monthlong internship this summer at Fort Gordon’s Eisenhower Army Medical Center in Georgia.
Following a mass casualty event at Fort Gordon in Georgia, Sac State Nursing student and ROTC cadet Vanessa Soltani (right) said she could not have anticipated she would get the chance to treat patients while attending a monthlong summer internship. (Photo courtesy of Vanessa Soltani)

Vanessa Soltani stood over a bloodied, unresponsive soldier at an Army hospital in Georgia, performing CPR while nine other patients in adjoining rooms fought for survival.

A Sac State Nursing student and Army ROTC cadet who was perfecting techniques for drawing blood and inserting IVs during an internship at Fort Gordon, Soltani suddenly found herself responding to a mass casualty event after lightning bolts struck soldiers during a training session.

As she pressed on her patient’s chest in rhythmic motion, her colleagues buzzed around the trauma room, administering fluids, measuring vital signs, and performing other emergency measures.

“I just wanted to save this person,” Soltani recalled. “I wanted to bring him back to life. That’s all I was thinking about.”

Despite 45 minutes of intensive efforts by Soltani and her colleagues, the patient died. But Soltani had to contain her emotions. She quickly offered her assistance treating the nine others who had suffered serious injuries, including burns.

The military is hailing Soltani as a hero whose quick and confident response proved critically important following the July 22 lightning strike.

“Her focus and compassion contributed to the Trauma Team’s saving of nine lives,” the Army said in a message featuring photos of Soltani and sent to military members. Her performance “demonstrates the education and training she has received as a nursing student and cadet at California State University, Sacramento,” the message said.

First Lt. Eric Owens, who supervised Soltani during her internship at Fort Gordon’s Eisenhower Army Medical Center, said he never hesitated to call on her when tragedy struck.

“I knew she would be a resource to us,” Owens said. “She was confident and competent. She knew what she was doing. She represented the Sac State Nursing Program and the Army Nurse Program very well.”

Soltani, who was born in Germany and attended high school in Loomis, transferred into the Nursing program from Sierra College and is on track to graduate in Spring 2023. She also is a member of the campus ROTC program, one of the few Nursing students to ever do so. Her dream is to work in a busy emergency room or intensive care unit while also serving in the Army Reserve.

She could not have anticipated she would get the chance to treat patients under similarly stressful conditions during her monthlong summer internship in Georgia, she said.

Since she was a child, Soltani has been intrigued by medicine. Her interest grew when she took anatomy and physiology courses in college.

“I have always been fascinated by how the human body works, and its ability to heal,” she said.

Soltani also was drawn to the structure and discipline of the military. The Army, she said, helped her secure American citizenship and gave her a broad range of exciting and educational experiences.

“Traveling, getting to meet people from all over the world, it’s something I very much appreciate,” she said.

The fateful day

It was a humid, cloudy morning in Richmond County, Georgia, when Soltani reported to her shift on the ninth floor of the Fort Gordon’s hospital on July 22. Thunder rumbled in the distance.

After drawing blood for lab tests and performing other duties, Soltani and Owens were working on patient charts when they learned soldiers conducting outdoor training exercises had been struck by lightning. Ten were being transported to the hospital. All available personnel were called to the emergency department.

“Do you want to go down there?” Owens asked Soltani. “Absolutely,” she said.

“I brought her because she seemed like more than a nursing student,” Owens said. “It was like having one of our regular nurses” on the scene, he said.

Soltani volunteered to perform chest compressions on the most seriously injured soldier, who was in cardiac arrest.

“They brought him in on a stretcher, and transferred him to a table,” she recalled. “I jumped on a stool to reach him,” and started pressing on his chest as she had been trained to do. Another nurse breathed into his mouth and helped insert a tube into his throat. Others checked for a pulse or heart rhythm.

“We worked on him for about 45 minutes” before a doctor pronounced him dead, Soltani said. “We really tried.”

A few minutes later, Soltani pivoted to adjoining rooms where she helped doctors and nurses tending to nine other patients. She assisted with burn care, used an electrocardiogram machine to check heart rhythms, and “did whatever I was asked to do,” she said.

All of the other patients survived.

“I’m going to remember it for a long, long time.” -- Vanessa Soltani, Sac State Nursing student and ROTC member

Soltani returned to her regular work station in the early evening, exhausted but grateful for having contributed.

News of her actions did not surprise Maj. Marshall Angerman, one of her former ROTC instructors at Sac State.

"Cadet Soltani has always been and continues to be a highly motivated and determined individual academically, physically and mentally,” Angerman said. “The actions she displayed is what we look to develop in all of our future Army officers through ROTC."

Crispin Tipton, a clinical Nursing professor at Sac State, attested to Soltani’s hard work and determination.

“I am impressed with her tenacity,” Tipton said. “Vanessa is a pleasure to teach. She absorbs what she is taught and can easily demonstrate her knowledge to her care of patients.

“I’m amazed by all that she does, and how she maintains her overall excitement about nursing.”

As she prepares to come back to campus and complete her degree, Soltani is mindful of her work in the trauma room at Fort Gordon.

“I’m going to remember it for a long, long time,” she said.

So, too, will Owens and the others who worked with her on July 22.

“She’s definitely cut out to be an Army nurse,” said Owens. “I would be more than happy to serve alongside her again one day.”


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About Cynthia Hubert

Cynthia Hubert came to Sacramento State in November 2018 after an award-winning career writing for the Sacramento Bee. Cynthia believes everyone has a good story. She lives in East Sacramento with her two cats, who enjoy bird-watching from their perch next to the living-room window.

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