Set in 1980s New York City, The Normal Heart portrays the beginnings of the HIV-AIDS crisis through the experiences of writer Ned Weeks, who notices some of his acquaintances have come down with a strange illness. A gay-friendly wheelchair using doctor, Emma Brookner, confirms his suspicious and asks for help getting attention and research for the “gay cancer”. Ned invites her to a meeting where she explains that she thinks it’s a sexually transmitted virus and urges them to stop having sex until a treatment is found. The men call her a “bitch on wheels” and insinuate that she wants them to stop having sex because she isn’t getting any either.
Ned and a few others take her seriously, though, and begin the long, slow process of getting funding for research in a hostile political climate. Dr. Emma becomes one of their best allies, as she knows something about having a virus “that no one gets”. Dr. Emma argues, cajoles, and sometimes must resort to trickery to get AIDS patients admitted to the hospital, and once they’re admitted is often the only doctor willing to enter their rooms without full gown and mask.
Though their relationship has been sometimes antagonistic, Ned and Emma make an effort to get to know each other at dinner one night. Emma reveals that she lost some physical abilities while going through medical school because she didn’t have time to work on physical therapy, and Ned is horrified that she would sacrifice physical ability for bettering her skills as a doctor. Ned insists she practice right now, puts on some music, and hauls her to her feet to slow dance. Emma complies at first, then suddenly realizes she’s enjoying the physical contact with a very gay man a little too much, and demands to be put back down.
Dr. Emma finally gets a chance to appeal for funding to the National Institutes of Health, but is snubbed by the committee which claims her research isn’t good enough and there’s no political will to find the cause of “gay cancer” anyway. She breaks all decorum and screams at the committee, calling them all idiots and passionately decrying their apathy while people continue to die.
Dr. Emma Brookner’s character was based on the real life Dr. Linda Laubenstein, who died at age 45. Dr. Laubenstein, who had polio and a motorized wheelchair, would visit patients in the emergency room at midnight and was known for using the accessible buses of New York City to make house calls. In addition to being one of the first physicians to recognize, describe, and organize research for AIDS, she also started Multitasking, a non-profit organization that provided employment for people with AIDS.