This is a New York Story

I left work at 6:30 to meet a friend at Flywheel Chelsea for spin class, something we do together to catch up and socialize. I work down in SoHo along 6th Ave, near the Canal Street 1. Takes about 20 minutes to get up to Flywheel from there. I catch the 1 uptown, same car as the conductor, it always stops nearest my exit up at 18th street. These are the habits we make as New Yorkers – knowing the trains, staking out the shortest route. I had time to spare before the 7 o’clock class. No stress.

As the train was pulling into 14th street, the woman sitting across from me starts to get up and leans over suddenly as if she’s about to talk to the woman sitting next to me, like they know each other or something – but she doesn’t stop leaning, she falls into the woman and onto the floor slowly. A moment of confusion ensues as we all recognize that something is seriously wrong.

The woman is having a seizure, there on the filthy subway floor. Reflexively I stash my phone and tuck my bag and bloody my knee crashing down next to her to help. I check her pulse, hold her hand, try to figure out whether it’s an epileptic seizure or something worse – a stroke? No, probably not – do those involve convulsing like this? Is she dying? I rack my brain to remember the lessons of a long ago CPR class. I yell for someone to call an EMT, a man runs to bang on the conductor’s door, another to yell in her window. The conductor makes that dreaded announcement “We’re being held because of a sick passenger…” I know what this means, now – and feel both uneasy but determined to hold that train until she’s safe. The woman next to me is holding onto her shoulders, I’m holding her hand, her phone has fallen nearby, her headphones lying in a pool of the drool coming from her mouth, I grab the phone – her bag is nearby safe; a shoe has come off. I look at her eyes, rolling back in her head, her pupils dilated, but her convulsions are not severe – I assume it’s best to simply hold on to her hand and wait for it to subside, popular advice is not to interfere with a seizure. A woman comes up, asks if she speaks Spanish. I don’t know. She waits. The conductor comes out of their little, special room, she’s anxious, upset, speaking to a dispatcher and frantically asking questions. Am I with this woman, does anyone know her? What’s happening to her? The EMTs are en route. I take a moment to look at her phone – no passcode – bad opsec I think, and stifle the urge to say so. This woman is smart, she has an ICE entry: “In Case of Emergency” right at the top of the list. I call the number – a man answers – I explain who I am and what’s going on. He says his name is Bob. She’s his sister, Camilla. He says this isn’t the first time. I give him my contact info – He’s not local and I feel like making sure he has someone to call in this city who knows what’s happened. I also feel as if I’ve stepped into a family drama – “this isn’t the first time… I’ll give her a call in a couple hours…” – I don’t know, but he is the ICE contact. I hang up. Camilla.

Another woman comes down from one of the other cars, asking pointed questions about her condition, what’s happened – she’s a nurse. Others step back, the two of us talk: her name is Camilla, she’s been convulsing for about 3 minutes, her pupils are dilated, I think it’s epilepsy. The nurse says we have to get her to lay down so she won’t injure herself. She takes her by the torso, just under the arms, I take her ankles – the woman is difficult to move – and she is beginning to come around.

Like a team that’s worked together before, we communicate, we start talking to Camilla as she emerges from the seizure into a disoriented daze – she can speak but she doesn’t know what’s going on. She says she knows where she is but she can’t explain where. The EMTs have arrived. The male EMT has a haircut from the 1950’s, is handsome, with piercing eyes and a strong jawline. The female EMT, a latina, steps in. The nurse explains what’s going on, I provide the name. We work to get her into a wheeled chair, the EMTs seem glad of the company. The female EMT asks Camilla questions, trying to assess her condition. They decide to take her off the train – “Where’s her medication?” the nurse asks, “she should have it with her” – and finds a huge pill bottle in the front pocket of Camilla’s bag. I stuff the mobile phone in the bag, and hand it over to the EMTs with the shoe. “Her brother is the ICE contact, first in the list, I just spoke to him.” I say. She nods and they wheel Camilla onto the platform. The nurse and I say a few pleasant words and sit down. The conductor, relieved, returns to her room and announces that we’re resuming our trip. Maybe 10 minutes have gone by – it feels so fast. We stop at 18th street. I wish the nurse a good weekend, we exchange that last moment of brief bonding that New Yorkers experience in crisis. I step off the train, and walk by the conductors window and say “have a great weekend!” She smiles and as I’m walking towards the turnstile yells “Great job!” and I flash the peace sign as I walk out. We try to put the pieces back together, together. The city moves on, anonymity returns. New Yorkers go on. In crisis we come out of the woodwork, holding back the darkness. When the crisis passes, we return to our solitary, frenetic existence – but that part of us that makes us New Yorkers is always ready for when a sister falls. That was the last I’ve seen of Camilla since, despite the intensity of the moment, and that’s the best outcome – to fade back into the city, strangers once more. (Names altered; 17-JUN-2017)

Featured image 2017 CC-BY Billie-Grace Ward