The subway station is no more crowded than usual this Friday. The smell of diesel mixed with dough from bagels wafts through the air. The grime on the floor is a mix of donut crumbs, dirt, urine, pizza grease, and soda. Saxophone notes penetrate conversations and demand space. A string breaks loudly on an electric guitar. A man with a long red beard talks to himself. Children scream at their parents.
Karim Saleh isn’t hearing, smelling, or really seeing any of this today. He feels a tightness in his chest. He’s 25 years old and has just been rejected from medical school for the 2nd time. He has no idea what he’s going to tell his family. He rushes past a crowd of people on his way to the subway, accidentally stepping on a petite woman’s foot. She glares at him, but he doesn’t see. He gets on the escalator and wonders what life would be like if he had just gotten into medical school two years ago. Now he’s on the way to shadow at the hospital. He’ll have to tell his mentor the bad news.
Myeisha Green is on the escalator and can’t see over the man who just stepped on her foot. She’s late for her company’s meeting, where she is finally supposed to present. She’s been with the company for 5 years now, but she’s spent most of the time fading into the background. Just last week, her boss said that she could finally pitch a product idea in front of the whole team. It’s her chance at a promotion and her chance at becoming something more than just a shadow. She steps over the gap and onto the subway, where she sits and daydreams about herself as future CEO. Just when she thinks she thinks she’s right on track, a middle aged man begins to have what looks like an anxiety attack across from her.
Aswini Rahman is on the subway with her 12 year old daughter, Ankitha, and her husband, Ashman. They are visiting from Bangladesh and can’t wait to see the Central Park Zoo and the Empire State Building. Ashman has his professional camera ready and has been taking pictures of Ankitha all day, who groans and hides under her book. Ashman is taking a picture of a cockroach and laughing to his wife when he suddenly feels like he can’t breathe. He gasps and holds his throat with his hand to signal that he is having trouble. Aswini doesn't know what to do. She begins to panic.
Kevin Lee is a first year internal medicine resident at NYU and has all the ideals of a new doctor. New York feels magical to him. He steps on the subway today with a smile because he feels like he hears the heartbeat of the city—the crying babies, the wannabe musicians, the frantic businesspeople. Kevin is reading the New England Journal and taking notes on congestive heart failure when he hears the cries of Ashman Rahman. He quickly stands up and rushes over to where Ashman sits with his family, struggling for oxygen. He asks someone nearby to call 911. He worries to himself and wonders whether he will really be able to help Ashman or not. The truth is, this is his first day, and he hasn’t had speciality training yet. But he's seen this very situation before in medical school. He scavenges in his bag, so quickly that he tosses his other belongings on the floor, but he can’t find what he’s looking for. Aspirin.
“Does anyone have an aspirin?” He shouts.
Anthony Giovani is a 911 operator and has been for the past 5 years. He can’t seem to finish his psychology degree at Manhattan College, and his Italian mother still brings leftover pasta to his doorstep so that he doesn't eat chips and salsa all week for dinner. He finds an odd comfort in calming people down when they call 911, and he takes his job extremely seriously. He catches on quickly when he feels that a caller cannot speak about the danger they’re in, and he instructs them to either order a pizza—or maybe thai food, if pizza is too obvious— or pretend they’re speaking with their oldest friend. Creativity is key. Today he gets a routine call. A man is having a heart attack on the subway. Anthony knows exactly what to do in these circumstances. Still, he hangs up the phone with sadness, knowing that he has no idea how the man’s situation will play out.
Joe Phillips has 5 children and a job as an X-ray tech at a hospital in the city. Lately, his life has been more stressful than usual. His youngest, Lillian, has been diagnosed with leukemia, and he and his wife are working overtime to make ends meet. He’s often told that he shouldn't have had so many kids. Then maybe he wouldn't have had a child with leukemia at all. Well, it’s true; if he had two children, Lillian probably wouldn't exist. But he can’t imagine life without any of his kids now, and he just wants to make it all work. The headaches started for him a couple of months ago. He hasn’t wanted to see a doctor about them, but over-the-counter medications have seemed to do the trick. So he’s been carrying them with him every day to work. But today he’s down to his last one, and he feels a particularly bad one coming on. He groans as he realizes that he needs to take two to relieve the pain. His thoughts are dissolved by a sudden commotion a few feet away from him. A man his age is coughing and struggling to breathe. Joe is alarmed and feels the pain expressed on his wife’s face on a personal level. A young doctor seems to have rushed to help him.
“Does anyone have any aspirin?” The young doctor shouts, looking out at the array of people on the subway.
Joe doesn’t think about anything. He just stands up. “I only have one.”
“That’s all we need!”
And just like that, Joe’s headache creeps in, like a shadowed figure grasping his skull and tightening it around his brain. He sighs and tries not to watch the doctor help the family, knowing how much he hates when people stare when he adjusts his daughter's feeding tube in public.
Daisy Reed is a paramedic and a single mom. She has just received a call that a man on the subway is having a heart attack. She hates these calls because it reminds her of her own dad, who passed away just two months ago. He lived alone and thought he was having an anxiety attack, so he didn’t call anyone. She can’t think about it without crying. So she doesn’t. Still, she’s on the ambulance, heading toward Penn Station, where she’ll hopefully save someone else’s dad. When the ambulance reaches the station, she and her team rush down the stairs to the car with a folded-up gurney. The man looks okay. A young doctor is by his side. Daisy Reed breathes a sigh of relief when the man is safe in the ambulance, where they can begin to treat him and relieve his suffering. He’s okay. The dad is okay.
Brody Lewis works front desk in ER admissions at the hospital. Today is a hard day for him. His girlfriend of 5 years left him, and now he can’t pay the rent for the apartment they shared. There is a lot of commotion around the ER admissions desk. Aswini and Ankitha Rahman are there, trying to converse with Brody, who cannot understand what they’re saying. It seems like they’re speaking a different language.
“I’m trying to tell you, he’s not here yet. But he will be.” Brody Lewis is becoming noticeably frustrated with Aswini and Ankitha. There is no one who can translate Bengali to English. The Rahmans are scared. Brody can’t do anything to help. He thinks it’s probably best for him to get out of the way so he doesn't do more harm than good.
The ambulance arrives at the hospital. Daisy Reed hops off the truck and prepares to move Ashman Rahman into the hospital, where he can receive more stable care. She takes one last look at the dad on the stretcher and leaves it in God’s hands. She knows this dad will be safe tonight. At least, she’s done the best she can.
Ankitha and Aswini Rahman give Ashman Rahman a kiss on the cheek before he’s taken into care by the doctors. They're worried. None of the doctors speak Bengali. New York isn’t exciting anymore.
The city is not silent even when Aswini Rahman and Ankitha Rahman fall asleep in the stiff hospital chairs. But neither are Ashman Rahman’s vital monitors. His breathing is getting stronger. And so is his heart.
The hospital is no more crowded than usual this Friday. The smell of sanitizer mixed with Starbucks wafts through the air. The grime on the floor is a mix of sweat, water, soda, and tears. Beeping monitors penetrate the silence and demand space. An ambulance siren wails loudly. Ankitha shifts in her uncomfortable sleep. The tightness in Ashman’s chest is gone.