Courtesy of Julian Rubinfien

Outside an apartment in Morningside Heights, a blue industrial jacket and cargo pants are crumpled in a small pile. A plastic face shield sits close by. Crescent-shaped and clear, it could almost double as a sun visor, barring the fact that it is meant to keep out contagions, not light.

They belong to Julian Rubinfien ’23. He has traded his family home in downtown Manhattan for a friend’s unclaimed Airbnb apartment, and strips off his personal protective equipment before returning to the Kierkegaard essay he is writing for his philosophy class. 

For the past few weeks, Julian has been working as an emergency medical technician with the New York City Medical Reserve Corps, a group of trained volunteers who can be dispatched to various healthcare facilities. One of the crews that he has joined is the Ridgewood Volunteer Ambulance Corps, an emergency response unit servicing Queens and Brooklyn. In normal circumstances, the team responds to calls on their own phone line. As coronavirus cases in New York have climbed, however, the city has counted on volunteer units to respond to 911 calls just as fire department ambulances do.

Julian, who earned an EMT license as a high school senior, was determined to volunteer since returning home from spring break. He not only had to find a place to work for but also a place to stay, since he could not risk exposing his family to COVID-19. His parents, he acknowledges, were difficult to convince. But when their phones buzzed with a text message from New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio urging health care workers to do their part, his family finally relented.

He is outside, in a park near his apartment, when we call. An egret unfolds its wings and disappears across a pond. He points his phone camera to the thick reams of pink that line the trees — spring in New York is beautiful — and pauses to consider what looks like a child’s memorial by the sidewalk. 

There’s a lot for him to consider.

Between finishing up schoolwork and continuing his computational research on cryogenic electron microscopy, he is trying his best to be useful on the EMT team, whether that means going on rounds, keeping patients company or clearing out of the way. And as classes end for the term, he plans to amp up his volunteer shifts. He is taking on his first doubleheader this weekend: 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. for two nights straight.

Set apart by decades from his coworkers, he is well aware that he is the “rookie by default.” As he told me with a laugh, when a patient’s friend called him “Doc” in the coronavirus ward, a nurse nearby swiftly issued a correction. 

Other differences emerge. He rarely slips out of his usual demeanor —  restrained, contemplative, comfortable with himself — except when he talks about the patients he has seen in Queens. Many in the hard-hit borough fall within the “essential worker” label, placing them at additional risk while the rest of the city stays indoors. Many who entered the hospital where he was stationed last week were black or Hispanic. Many, he observed, lack access to the “simplest kind of privilege: knowledge of how the world works and is run.” Sharply aware of his own incongruous position, he says, “I try not to outwardly be a Yale student when I go to those things.”

Throughout our conversation, I waited for a trace of any holier-than-thou attitude — it would be well earned — but it never arrived. He attributed part of the community values he has cultivated to the city’s own resilience in times of crisis. It is as if he nixed a few dictionary definitions: what for many is a could becomes his ought

“When you have a license you have an obligation to offer your services,” Julian said.

And when our conversation was interrupted at 7 p.m. as the neighborhood broke into applause — a nightly ritual to recognize health care workers —  he told me that he does not feel like the claps are for him. He parried my compliments relentlessly and resolutely, diverting praise toward full-time health care workers. 

“They’re real angels. There’s no real introspection, there’s no deliberation. They’re always on it and making themselves better at it. Being an EMT is an unbelievably difficult line of work.”

Being surrounded by patients also means that he must be particularly strict about self-isolation. Calling his friends eases an abiding sense of loneliness. He fills loose pockets of time running errands — he said he underestimated how much time it took to live on his own. During the school year he is on the cook team for Y Pop-Up, so suffice it to say that he has managed just fine cooking for himself. Still, he gladly receives the baked goods his upstairs neighbor has been leaving him outside the door. 

“I feel like Gregor in The Metamorphosis,” he said, wryly. “They think they’re supporting the troops by doing this, but it’s just me and cinnamon rolls.”

I wondered if he reads Kafka and the other authors he has been studying in Directed Studies any differently amid the pandemic. Almost surgically, he split the question into thirds. 

“Do I recognize anything I see in what I’m reading? Yes. Can anything explain what I’m seeing? That’s the no. I’ll never fall into that kind of naivete,” he said. “Is anything we’re reading a comfort to me personally? In that case, yes.” He’s been making a stash of supplies in case he gets sick, which for now includes a pulse oximeter, Gatorade and his books.

I ventured to ask if he is worried for his own health. 

“No.” He’s resolute. He is taking all possible precautions and wears all the protective gear he has access to. He’s been lucky, so far: his team received a shipment of much-needed PPE right before he arrived.

“I’m worried that if I got sick that I would spread it to other people without knowing,” he conceded. “But I can’t be worried for myself when other people don’t have a choice. Other people have to go to work everyday. They’re older, they have comorbidities that I don’t have, they’re scared. I feel like there’s a scared budget, and that’s been filled up already. You have to be all the other things.” 

Emily Tian | emily.tian@yale.edu

This story is part of a larger series profiling Yale and New Haven community members during the COVID-19 pandemic. To read more, click here.