‘Fierce in all that she did’: Friends and family remember Zoe Nussbaum ’22

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Courtesy of Dr. Eric Nussbaum.

Zoe Nussbaum ’22 died May 15, 2021. She was 21 years old. Nussbaum is survived by her father, Dr. Eric Nussbaum, her mother, Ann Chikahisa and her older brother, Zach Nussbaum.

Nussbaum, known by some friends as “Nuss,” was born March 20, 2000, in Skokie, IL, and spent her early life in Chicago. At the beginning of ninth grade, she moved with her family to Seattle, WA, where she attended Roosevelt High School.

At Occidental, Nussbaum studied biochemistry and math, hoping to one day travel the world for Doctors Without Borders. Nussbaum was also deeply connected in Occidental’s student-athlete community as a leader on Occidental’s lacrosse team, where she played as a defender, and as the president of the SCIAC Student Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC).

Courtesy of coach Hannah Khin.

All the while, Nussbaum worked shifts as a medical scribe at the Community Hospital of Huntington Park and Coast Plaza Hospital, helping physicians on duty see patients. Sometimes, Nussbaum would not get home until dawn, according to friends. Eric Nussbaum said Nussbaum’s interest in medicine came from a deeply-rooted responsibility to help those around her and to put their needs ahead of her own.

“She had a sense of exploration and adventure. Doctors Without Borders, I think, was as much about exploring the world as it was about helping people,” Eric Nussbaum said. “She didn’t feel it was right to go explore the world without helping those along the way.”

This sentiment was shared by Nussbaum’s friends, according to teammate Elizabeth Andrews* ’21. A strong ethic of selflessness guided Nussbaum’s life, Andrews said, and she was generous in her care for others.

“She was just the kind of person who [cared], especially about other people,” Andrews said. “In even the briefest interaction she wanted to know how you were doing, how your day was, what was going on in your life. She actually wanted to know that information.”

Dr. Ricky Bush, an emergency physician and family friend who was known affectionately by Nussbaum as “Uncle Ricky,” oversaw Nussbaum’s work as a medical scribe. According to Bush, Nussbaum’s coworkers embraced her instantly, in part due to her sharp wit and loving sense of humor.

“She was always very honest about who she was and what she was going through. She could make fun of herself, and not everybody has the comfort at that age to do that,” Bush said.

Despite suffering an ACL injury during her first year at Occidental which required reconstructive surgery, Nussbaum built a reputation on the lacrosse team as both a fiery competitor and caring teammate.

One of Nussbaum’s close friends and teammates, Katherine Drake ‘21, remembers one of the team’s first strength training practices during Nussbaum’s first year, in which the team was asked to do box jumps.

“She went straight for the largest box we had,” Drake said.

“She wasn’t the kind of girl to pose and take pictures to look cute,” Andrews said. “Photos for her were more about capturing the fun of a moment, capturing the joy of being with your friends, capturing the experience of being with others.” Courtesy of coach Hannah Khin.

Occidental lacrosse head coach Hannah Khin, who coached Nussbaum throughout her time at Occidental, said she was struck by how fearless Nussbaum was — from the first day of practice onward.

“Most first years are really timid and scared, but I remember the upperclassmen being like, ‘Zoe is such a beast in the weight room, she puts up so much weight,’” Khin said. “She went really hard in everything she did. It didn’t matter her age she was going to make an impact no matter what.”

Nussbaum’s competitive drive and swagger may have surprised teammates at first, but according to Eric Nussbaum, Nussbaum had always approached her life in that way.

“Fierce in her friendships, fierce in her views, fierce in her passions — from the beginning she was fierce,” Eric Nussbaum said. “Fierce in all that she did.”

Courtesy of Dr. Eric Nussbaum.

According to Eric Nussbaum, the way Nussbaum’s teammates took care of her after her ACL injury demonstrated the admiration her teammates had for her.

“Her whole team showed up for her leaving the surgery center, everybody,” Eric Nussbaum said. “She was part of that team. I don’t think the coach organized that, I think someone else did, and everybody showed up.”

Even while facing hardships of her own, Nussbaum’s empathetic nature came naturally, according to Andrews.

“I think it brought her a little bit of joy to be selfless and to put other people first,” Andrews said. “It was deeply embedded into who she was.”

Outside of the team, Nussbaum left a warm memory with everyone whose path she crossed, according to her friends and coach.

“She had this kind of cool edge to herself, but she was always so warm and was kind to everyone. She was always willing to help and meet new people,” Khin said.

JP Flores ’21, a co-president of Occidental’s SAAC alongside Nussbaum, shared this sentiment, adding that Nussbaum had a magnetic personality that left a mark on those who met her.

“She had this presence … very radiating. She lit up the entire room, she lit up the eyes of everybody who saw her,” Flores said. “She had an amazing smile.”

Courtesy of Dr. Eric Nussbaum.

Nussbaum loved food, exploring and adventure, Eric Nussbaum said, often texting him late at night after they got off work for spontaneous street food adventures.

“She could appreciate when her father took her to someplace fancy and the good food that went with it, and she would appreciate the street tacos just as much,” Eric Nussbaum said.

Nussbaum was fiercely independent according to her father, even refusing to use a family friend’s connection to help get herself a job while growing up in Seattle. He said the friend was surprised at Nussbaum’s decision.

“Zoe completely disarmed her when she said, ‘I want to do it on my own,’” Eric Nussbaum said.

According to Drake, the vibrance with which Nussbaum lived every day was infectious to those around her.

“She was two years younger than me, but I definitely looked up to her,” Drake said. “Thinking about what she’s taught me, it’s definitely to be more impulsive and have more fun.”

For Nussbaum’s friends and family, her light continues to shine through the lessons she taught them — about how to lift others up no matter the circumstance.

“Zoe was a lighthouse, constantly turning around, looking at every person around her. ‘How are you doing? Are you OK? How can I help you? How can I support you?’” Andrews said. “She was such an amazing light and had such an impact on other people.”

*Elizabeth Andrews ’21 is a former designer at The Occidental