I’m Alive Today Because Strangers on the Subway Knew CPR

Traveling underneath Harlem on a southbound A Train, I was standing in the first car as the train stopped at the 125th St. station. A moment later, I was being hoisted up several flights of stairs, strapped in a medical gurney. At street level, a sign read “59th St. — Columbus Circle.” Everything was garbled and nothing made sense. Why was I being hauled up the stairs, and why wasn’t this 125th St.? The EMT’s loaded me into a New York-Presbyterian ambulance, said something about a miracle and drove off. I just lay in the back, dazed.

Gradually, I learned what happened. As the train left 125th St., I had collapsed on the floor, started foaming at the mouth and turned blue. A few seats away, Dr. Sonia Tolani, a cardiology fellow at New York-Presbyterian/Columbia Medical Cente, quickly realized I had gone into sudden cardiac arrest. I didn’t have a heart attack; electrically, my heart went into a fatal rhythm and stopped beating. I literally dropped dead. Dr. Tolani immediately started Hands-Only CPR to keep blood flowing to my brain and organs. Knowing she needed help, she called out and asked if anyone else knew CPR. Another passenger, Tony Medaglia, volunteered and joined in with her. Tony also worked at New York-Presbyterian/Columbia, but didn’t know Dr. Tolani. He worked in a non-medical position. Tony was a retired cop, though, and had fortunately learned CPR at the police academy.

At 5pm during a Friday rush hour, the train was slow to get to the next stop at 59th St. Luckily, an AED defibrillator was located there. Not many subway stations in New York City have them and all the chest compressions in the world won’t shock the heart back into rhythm. Taking turns, Dr. Tolani and Tony performed 100 chest compressions per minute on me, for over 23 minutes, as the train continued heading south. Tony’s business suit became drenched with sweat and the doctor developed large bruises on the palms of her hands and on her knees. When the train reached 59th St., the transit police arrived with the AED. Dr. Tolani placed the pads on me as the cops assisted. After the first shock, she couldn’t find a pulse, so she continued CPR for another two minutes. A second shock and still nothing. Back to the CPR again. At that point, the doctor figured I wasn’t coming back. She had the transit cop operate the defibrillator a third time, but it never delivered the shock. The device won’t fire if it detects a heartbeat and, right at that moment, one of the cops noticed my eyes starting to roll around. Dr. Tolani found a bounding pulse as I suddenly took a deep breath. I came back. The crowd went wild.

The EMT’s quickly arrived, put me on the gurney and took me off the train. I spent the next five days in the hospital. An ICD defibrillator was implanted just below my collarbone. The ICD is now my “guardian angel” and, since then, has paced my heart out of other irregular rhythms. Tests showed I had no brain damage or any loss of bodily function. Initially, my reaction time was a little slow, but I was fine otherwise. Before I was discharged, the hospital arranged a reunion for me with all the responders. Aside from the EMT’s, I had no idea what anyone else looked like. Hugs went all around. Dr. Tolani told me, by her watch, I was gone for 27 minutes. Emotions ran high that afternoon as I met these great people who saved me.

I’m alive today thanks to the extraordinary efforts of two good Samaritans on a subway train who knew Hands-Only CPR. They were determined that I not die. As a medical doctor studying to become a cardiologist, Sonia Tolani had performed CPR many times. Her presence in that train car proved invaluable and lifesaving. Tony Medaglia was simply a good guy with a big heart who volunteered to help. He was also, however, someone who had taken time to learn CPR in the past.

Learning Hands-Only CPR takes just minutes. It’s the best investment of time that you can make. Trust me, I’m living proof of it. When a person goes into sudden cardiac arrest, their survival depends on getting immediate CPR from someone nearby. It’s a two-step process. First, call 911. Next, push hard and fast in the center of the chest. The American Heart Association makes learning really easy. Watch their 60-second demonstration video at www.heart.org/handsonlycpr. CPR can double or even triple a victim’s chance of survival.

Go learn CPR. Don’t wait. Do it now. Watch the video. Better yet, take a class. I’m lucky to be here today. More than lucky. Winning the lottery is nothing compared to this. And there may come a day when you find yourself in the position to make someone lucky too.

Hey, you never know. Just do it.

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