A Fainting Spell on the NYC Subway

The subway comes to a sudden halt in the middle of the dark tunnel. Audible groans come from the commuters packed on the train at rush hour. This unexpected stop could well be the difference between on time and tardy. For those with time card to punch in, this delay may quite literally cost them. The conductor comes over the loud speaker. Crackling or muffled speech is the norm which New Yorkers can decode because we know the script:

“Ladies and gentlemen, we are delayed because of train traffic ahead of us. We should be moving shortly. We apologize for any inconvenience. Thank you for your patience.” 

This is the most common refrain. More often than not the train does in fact begin moving again within five minutes.

Ladies and gentleman we are delayed due to a sick passenger on the train directly ahead of us. We hope to be moving shortly. Thank you for your patience.”

This variation on the script is not one heard often. But when you hear it you know you’re going to be late. Make yourself comfortable in that tunnel, because the paramedics have to be called, then arrive, and the whole thing is a huge mess. You’ll sit in the tunnel hating the sick person for making you late. And feeling like a jerk for hating this poor person who you hope is okay.

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No one wants to be that sick person. Ever. It’s one of the average New Yorkers’ biggest fears. Right up there with bed bug infestations.

It is one of my New York goals that a subway announcement is never made about me. Yesterday on the morning commute I got way to close for comfort.

I’ve been temping in midtown all week at a 9-5 reception job. Which means when I board the train at 8:30 and off at 8:55, the crowds are peak. It’s how I imagine Times Square is on New Year’s Eve, but fortunately it only lasts half an hour. There is no personal space on these trains, you’re smooshed up against everyone, there’s hardly any room to me. But it’s nothing new, I’ve been on the train at rush hour countless times before. Which makes my experience yesterday all the more unnerving.

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I’m on the D train, approaching 59th Street. It’s been a smooth ride, sailing express from 125th to 59th without a hitch. We’re in the final stretch, I know, I take this train several times a day.

Suddenly, with no warning, my vision becomes fuzzy. Stars start to twinkle in my peripheral vision. What the hell is happening? This is what it’s like when a person faints! This is what it was like the one time I fainted before! There’s no boyfriend to catch me now! I’m on a crowded subway! Could I be in a worse place? Why is this happening?

I start taking deep breaths, hoping that will help. Lack of oxygen is why ladies in corsets used to faint, right? But the stars are closing in, my whole view of the subway is sparkling and quickly fading into a tunnel of black. I sink to the floor.

On my own accord. I’m still conscious and now I’m squatting on the floor of the subway. I haven’t made a sound. I haven’t asked for help. I haven’t even asked for a seat. There was no time? I didn’t want people freaking out? I’m not sure, but right now I’m squatting with my head between my knees, struggling to remain conscious.

I realize my body is drenched in sweat, the kind of sweat pours out of you from fear. This sweat is primal, and uh, pungent. Oh my God, I’m the stinky person on the train! Every subway fear is being realized!

It’s funny to be surrounded by people and feel so alone. Subway commutes are so cold, eye contact is avoided, personal touch is inevitable and completely void of humanity. I’m an independent woman, I hate asking for help. But not asking for help in this scenario was likely to end in the blackest of black places. Still crouched on the floor I wondered what the hell I was going to do.

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“Are you okay?” Asks a nice woman and she offers me her seat. I gladly accept.

“I feel faint. I don’t know why. Thank you.”

Suddenly everyone is offering me things. Suddenly it felt like everyone is on my side. Like the subway car was a community rather than individuals minding their own business. I don’t have to ask for help. I’m offered it.

“Here, maybe sugar will help?” One woman offers me a cough drop. Another woman offers me gum. It’s like everyone looks into their purse, realizes they don’t have anything helpful, but wants to try any way. “I have some water.” says a third woman, digging around in her giant handbag.

I refuse it all. Before I left the house I’d had tea with milk and honey. There was no reason for me to be dehydrated. No reason to blame blood sugar. I hadn’t eaten breakfast yet, but I do that all the time. Plus I’d had dinner around 9:30PM the night before. This fainting spell was bizarre, I can’t account for it.

Sitting down helped immeasurably and when we finally arrive at 59th Street, I feel strong enough to get off the train. “Feel better, hun!” Says still another woman. I’m off the train. The danger of being the sick person on the loud speaker is over. The relief is palpable. As is my love for New Yorkers. All those woman wanted to make sure I was okay. Can a moral boost make you feel physically stronger? I’d say so. I feel okay walking the few blocks to work. I grab a huge blueberry muffin on the way, sugar and carbs seem like a good idea.

And that was it. I felt fine the rest of the day. So. Weird.

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I’m tempted to look up “Fainting” on WebMD, but I don’t really want to be convinced I have a brain tumor.

I did google “Fainting Spells” and this handy wikihow article told me what to do if I have one and what might have caused mine. “Stress” and “Low Blood Pressure” are on that list, two things I suppose I’m prone to. While this spell remains a bizarre one-time-only event, those are the causes I choose to blame. Should it happen again, I’ll seek true medical advice.

Now the morning commute doesn’t look bad at all any more. Delays and shoving people and armpits in my face and cranky conductors are all fine by me. I’m just grateful to be conscious and standing up.

About New York Cliche

NYC lifestyle blog by Mary Lane. Events, adventures, epic mistakes, dating, life, humor. A 20-something trying to make it (and make out) in the city of dreams.

22 thoughts on “A Fainting Spell on the NYC Subway

  1. I get faint when I lock my knees when standing for too long, especially standing while moving. I am glad to hear you are okay and feeling better – no worse place than there to have an episode – nice that people were being kind and caring to you 😉 Take Care!
    cravesadventure recently posted…Creating SpaceMy Profile

  2. I had this happen in the fall! I started feeling weird as the train went over the bridge, felt REALLY weird, and then my vision greyed out for a minute. I must have passed out while standing up (and didn’t fall!) because when I could see again the guy in front of me was bending over. I was like, “Why is HE bending over? I’m the one who feels awful!” But I had dropped my book without noticing and he was picking it up for me. He then pointed and I realized we’d arrived at my stop, without me even noticing!

    I made it to work and my boss got me a bagel and orange juice and I felt much better. I think locked knees definitely is part of it, as well as overheating when the subway is crowded. My boss mentioned there’s even a kind of claustrophobia that’s connected to this, so that might be part of it! I’m so glad people helped you out! I was the same way, I didn’t even think of asking to sit down when I started to feel weird.
    Sarah recently posted…The Improvised Shakespeare CompanyMy Profile

    1. I’ve actually been kicked in the neck! Not hard but my opinion forever changed when that happened. Oh, and the kicking my cell phone across the car and the numerous times I’ve had a migraine…..
      Farin recently posted…Brooklyn BridgeMy Profile

  3. What a nightmare. But I am impressed at how friendly people were – I love New Yorkers, but it would definitely be a New York cliche if they ignored you while you passed out on the floor. Hope you’re feeling better!
    Lydia recently posted……swam with manateesMy Profile

  4. Dearest Sweet Cousin! Breakfast is a must in our family, it runs in the blood. Especially right around the age you are (10 years less than me) not having something beyond tea/milk/honey/coffee/espresso/whiskey first think in the morning will cause the exact symptoms you experienced. Along with crankiness and general insanity. Your Uncle Johnny would recommend a bowl of Bait. Whatever floats your boat. If you can’t eat in the morning, put some carbs in your purse- just in case this happens again.

  5. Yuuuuck… know the exact feeling. It runs in our family as well as evidently in yours! Ours are precipitated by pain — in fact, my latest one was on Monday, just before yours. I had fallen at a gas station and picked myself up quickly and driven off way sooner than I should have, just because I was embarrassed. And then, while sitting at a light, the telltale signs (for me, my ears always ring, then I lose hearing, then the vision starts doing the grey out thing). Of course, I was sitting in my car, so I couldn’t totally pass out, but still, such an icky feeling.

    My doctor assures me it’s basically harmless, and the worst issue associated with fainting spells are actually injuring yourself — hitting your head, for instance — when you fall. If you’re researching, look at “vasovagal syncope.”

    So sorry and I hope it doesn’t happen again, but if it does, as awkward as it sounds, lie on the floor with your head lower than your feet. It really helps.

  6. So weird, on Sunday the 11th I had a very similar experience. I ended up crouching down on the floor and even told someone “I don’t feel well” in case I suddenly passed out. Thank goodness I made it to the platform, and once I slowly walked outside into the fresh air I felt better. +1 for the article because misery loves company? haha. Glad that you are ok.

  7. Glad you are ok and its awesome to see there are some good people left in the world to help. Always carry a protein bar and water with you — I have had these issues in the past and it works right away.

    I am sure you heard about what happened here in DC this week on the metro. I have been on your subway system and I have to say you guys have it together up there.

  8. Holy crap. I’m so sorry about this and I’m so happy that you did NOT faint. Although now I have to read about the time that you DID faint.

    I have never fainted before. It’s one of my worst nightmares. Thank goodness for the kind souls on the Subway.

  9. This reminds me of a unexplained feeling of nausea. And I think all New Yorkers have that thought “Oh no…. I’m going to be that person”. I wasn’t but the fear is real.
    Farin recently posted…Brooklyn BridgeMy Profile

  10. Im so happy to have found this! The exact same thing happened to me today. I was taking the L (what the two L’s in Hell stand for) this morning. It’s July and super hot and I am always pretty sweaty by the time I make it to the subway, crammed against everyone else. Today I was able to find a bubble of space (so rare) and was leaning against the door, reading a book absolutely fine for about four stops. All of a sudden I just started to feel weird-My heart was beating and I was sweating and started to feel super claustrophobic. Normally the masses of people irritates me but never makes me feel panicky. I have never had a panic attack but because of the sudden need to get out I thought maybe this was one. I tried talking myself through it, taking deep breaths when my vision started to get blurry. “Oh God” I thought, “Please let this pass, I cannot faint on a subway, I cannot be that person!” Then my vision went totally black-like I had my eyes open in a pitch black room. When my hearing started to go I knew I was in trouble. It felt like my head was underwater-I could hear people…as if my head was under water! I groped to my right where I knew someone was sitting and asked in a voice I could barely hear, if I could sit because I thought I was going to faint. I put my head inbetween my legs and eventually sight and sound came back. Like you I was totally drenched in sweat and obviously very shaking after. So scary! Glad to know I wasnt the only one

  11. Wow this just happened to me yesterday around the same morning commute on the 2 train… I was just a regular commuter reading my book when suddenly I felt claustrophobic (not that anyone was standing too close), I felt really hot, chest was tight, and my eyes felt pressure that eventually turned into some sort of tunnel vision. I remember putting my book down while this was occurring and having raced thoughts; “what’s happening here? Ok this doesn’t feel right. I might fall. OMG”… Almost immediately, I blacked out. I still don’t know for how long but I remember my body swaying to the side as if people were trying to sit me down… I heard voices from a distance as if calling you from a dream and waking you up. Slightly waking up, eyes still closed, but in a distance, I heard someone call out for a nurse while people kept saying wake up, one kept fanning me,another person was trying to give me candy, & the lady next to me held my hand and prayed. I felt so weak.
    I started regaining consciousness, opened my eyes to see everyone staring at me. Embarrassed? An understatement indeed. I answered the nurses’ question and someone yelled “she’s conscious now”… All I kept thinking was that I needed to get to work or I’ll be late.
    Don’t know if they made the sick passenger announcement for me but quite frankly I didn’t care. I was faint and needed help. To make this long story short I went to the hospital and they said I was fine. It is now the following day and I still feel weak.

  12. I found this post because this just happened to me like an hour ago. I thought I was overheating because of the heavy cardigan I was wearing. I was standing next to the pole, with a shopping bag between my legs. All of a sudden I started getting really hot and sweaty, heart started racing, the train car started spinning around. And for some reason one of my coworkers was on the train with me. I started hanging on to the pole with two hands and started to feel myself sliding down. I was three stops away from work and didn’t know if I should get up. Thankfully, I spotted a seat and was able to sit and started to immediately feel better. I had no idea what was happening, it had kinda happened to me before last year, but not as badly. I was convinced I had vertigo. When I got to work, I talk to my coworker and he told me that I might have had my knees locked for too long. Then it all made sense. The shopping bag, held in place between my knees for most of the ride. Anyway, thought I’d post since the comments here made me feel better.

  13. sorry to hear that, at least people seemed to have pitched in for you. I have seen people faint standing up and people simply walked over them. you said this was in January, could it have been too hot, and with the crowded trains and limited air/ space , plus wearing a coat that could cause anyone to faint. the heat is way too high sometimes in those cars. not to mention th e anxiety of being on a train that has delays and its burning up, you could faint from anxiety/ heat alone!

  14. EMS guy here. wanted to let you know why you fainted. it wasn’t related to low blood sugar or dehydration, it was because of a lack of sufficient oxygen.

    I’m routinely seeing more and more passengers become lightheaded and out of breath in morning subway commutes because of two elements:

    1. over capacity in subway cars
    2. lack of proper ventilation

    while you traveled to work that morning, the subway car became filled with more and more people. the car also became hotter, this was due to the sudden increase in C02 (carbon dioxide) within the car, which was being exhaled by all the passengers. when C02 increases and oxygen decreases inside of a close environment (such as a subway car) without proper ventilation, you start to get lightheaded and soon faint.

    I advise as a preventive measure that if you enter a subway car in the future that feels overly hot and/or uncomfortable, please exit the car immediately. try to find another car that is cooler (ventilated) or wait for the next train.

    1. would it be helpful (given if you had no choice and still had to enter packed subway trains) to carry an inhaler or a brown bag to breathe into?

      Sometimes there’s no way I can be late to work, and yet three to four trains in a row will be packed to the max, yet this morning I almost fainted three times and thankfully I found a seat before I fainted. It was also 85% humidity this morning and I have a low heat tolerance.

  15. I feel you. I know how terrible it feels to be that vulnerable around a bunch of strangers.Been experiencing this since I was a kid. I had the whole battery of tests (ECG, EKG, blood tests, basically anything the doctors could think of!) Never discovered a physiological reason so we have put it down to some form of anxiety/claustrophobia. I have resigned myself to the inevitable- as soon as I feel my breathing get constricted I will sit down (ANYWHERE) and try to restore blood flow to my brain. More often than not I can recover in minutes.

    My advice to you: find your trigger and avoid it like the plague 🙂

  16. Same thing has happened to me twice this year, the second time being today.
    The first time it was because I was anemic from a pregnancy I wasn’t aware of at the time.

    This morning, with a pregnancy extremely unlikely, I had to attribute it to a UTI that had progressed faster than I had realized. Ironically I was on the way into the doctors office, and thankfully, after getting off at 5 different stops just to sit down at the platform, I emerged from underground and felt much better.

    Infections and Anemia seem to be the main factors for me, so definitely take into account all possible health conditions you may have after a mysterious fainting spell!

  17. Its an old post, I know, but what you went through is Vasovagal Syncope. I have them occasionally, but only while standing in buses or subways. Mine are a form of vibration induced motion sickness that triggers the effects of whiteout, sweating, vertigo, and of course passing out. My first serious episode came on the Beijing Subway. Was not fun. One second I am reading a book the next my fingers feel cold followed by coming to, 4 stops down the line! Almost lost it today on the bus home, not fun because afterward I act kind of loopy like I had one too many and cannot walk straight, when I am actually battling residual vertigo. Luckily they are rare, oddly, sitting on the train or bus does not bring it on.

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