Instead of bouquets of freshly cut flowers, potted houseplants line the windowsill in hospital Room 537.
Like a hostess in her own home, Barbara Latasiewicz offers visitors beverages from the minifridge given to her by hospital staff one Christmas. After all, the room — one of the biggest on the fifth floor of Adventist La Grange Memorial Hospital — is where she lives.
For two years now, the 60-year-old former maid has lived in that room, since the day she suddenly felt weak while scrubbing the bathtub of a La Grange home and could not stand up, she said in Polish through a translator.
An undocumented Polish immigrant, she is well enough to leave the hospital, but with nowhere to go.
"She's in limbo. There's really no options for her at this point," said Tam Tran, Latasiewicz's guardianship representative from the Illinois state guardian's office. "We know she's more appropriate for a nursing home setting, but this is the only option: to reside at La Grange Memorial Hospital."
Or as Latasiewicz says with a smile, "I got married to the hospital."
Latasiewicz suffered a massive stroke in September 2009. The hospital social work team started planning her discharge the day after she was admitted but ran into roadblocks, according to records.
"Many agencies and facilities were contacted to try to find other available resources to assist the patient/family," a staffer wrote in a memo. "All efforts led to a dead end."
With no insurance, public aid or family able to care for her, the acute-care — or short-term care — hospital has kept her as a patient.
The case offers a glimpse into the complex and expensive problems hospitals can face when an undocumented person comes through the door for help. Hospitals, by law, have to provide emergency care to anyone who seeks it.
Undocumented people living in the U.S. typically are not eligible for Medicare or other public funds. In many cases, those who suffer debilitating health issues are repatriated to their home country after they have been stabilized in a U.S. hospital and a health care plan has been established abroad, experts said.
The hospital would initiate repatriation in conjunction with the guardian's office and patient's family. La Grange Memorial has not pursued that course because no one in Poland has agreed to take her and the hospital doesn't want to just dump her there.
"We didn't feel in good conscience we could do this until we could find a solution," said Mary Murphy, the chief nursing officer.
No one formally tracks the numbers of debilitated undocumented patients nationally, but in Illinois, the state guardian's office is appointed to fewer than five cases a year, said Helen Godlewski Brownfield, director of the office.
Latasiewicz's saga began Sept. 22, 2009. When she fell ill, the owner of the home she was cleaning called 911, and Latasiewicz was taken to the closest hospital, La Grange Memorial.
Bleeding in the brain left her weak and paralyzed on the left side of her body. She needed therapy and around-the-clock care, Murphy said.
Two years later, her left arm curls into her lap when she's seated in her wheelchair. She can't walk, needs help getting in and out of her wheelchair and is not entirely continent.
She was declared a ward of the state after the hospital found she was not capable of managing or making decisions about her health, finances and future.
She has a son, Peter, who declined to care for his mother because of his own financial troubles. A father of two, he has declared bankruptcy twice and lost his home.
"I'm doing what I can," he said. The younger Latasiewicz does his mother's laundry and brings her personal items she needs.
His mother's older siblings abroad are also not able to care for her, said Peter Latasiewicz, who lives in Schaumburg. Latasiewicz said she doesn't want to return to Poland.
Polish Consul General in Chicago Zygmunt Matynia told the Tribune he didn't know what benefits she'd qualify for in Poland because she hasn't worked in the country for two decades. The consulate has not been involved in her case.
"This is the best thing for her. She gets help 24/7," Peter Latasiewicz said. "She wouldn't have had even a fraction of it staying at home."
But for the hospital, it's an expensive conundrum. If she were to get a bill for her care so far, Latasiewicz would owe more than $1 million. La Grange Memorial Hospital has actually spent $250,000 on her care so far, a hospital spokeswoman said. Those funds will come out of its charity care budget, which last year was $2.4 million.
Overall, the American Hospital Association estimates that in 2009, American hospitals provided almost $40 billion in uncompensated care, much of it to undocumented immigrants, according to a letter the association sent in June to President Barack Obama.
Though the state guardian's office doesn't get involved with all of the cases involving undocumented patients, Godlewski Brownfield said her office has been involved recently with cases similar to Latasiewicz's.
In one instance, a Mexican national has been at Sinai Health System's Schwab Rehabilitation Hospital in Chicago since suffering a traumatic brain injury in 2008. Last year, a Polish national was repatriated to Poland after a three-year stay at the University of Illinois Medical Center at Chicago following a traumatic brain injury.
Latasiewicz's situation, though, is unusual, said Julie Contreras, national immigrant affairs commissioner for the League of United Latin American Citizens, a Latino rights organization. Undocumented patients are typically repatriated to their home country, said Contreras, who works with undocumented patients, their families and hospitals.
"Once the patient is stabilized, (hospitals) want them out," she said. "It's unique that (she has) been there for two years, and that facility should be commended."
The Tribune told the story earlier this year of Quelino Ojeda Jimenez, an injured 20-year-old laborer who was in the U.S. illegally and was moved from an Oak Lawn hospital after four months of care to a resource-poor Mexican facility, sparking fierce criticism.
The care offered at an acute-care hospital is more expensive than at a nursing home or rehabilitation facility, so someone who doesn't need high-level care is occupying the time of skilled doctors and nurses and using a hospital bed more suited for someone in a more critical condition, experts said.
"It's a burden on the entire health care system," said Danny Chun, spokesman for the Illinois Hospital Association. "You're caring for a patient that no one is paying for."
In the end, it leads to higher premiums and service cuts, hospital association officials said.
For Latasiewicz, life in the hospital is routine, and scrub-clad staffers have become like a family. She is known as "Basha" to the nurses, doctors, aides and administrative workers who stop to chat with her as she traverses the fifth floor's teal and beige hallways.
Though she doesn't speak much English, and many of the staff at the hospital don't speak Polish, they've learned to communicate.
As Doris Garcia, a physical therapy assistant pushes on Latasiewicz's feet, the patient quietly says "boli."
It's a Polish word to indicate pain that the therapists now recognize after dozens of sessions.
Latasiewicz was born in Poland and lived in the city of Bielsko-Biala until 1990, when she and her son arrived in Chicago using a temporary visa, which they overstayed.
"He started school, and I had to stay," she said. "I didn't want to leave him by himself."
The single mother, who had attended culinary school in Poland, and her son settled on the Northwest Side, and she began to work, mainly as a house cleaner. Until her stroke, Latasiewicz cleaned up to six homes a day, was always on the go and tended to her flowers and vegetable garden. Most recently she lived in Des Plaines.
Now she wakes up in the institutional room that she's made homey with plants, including a tomato plant picked clean by her 4-year-old grandson.
Every morning she is helped out of her bed with a mechanical lift. Latasiewicz gets dressed with the help of her caretakers, who also measure her blood pressure and temperature. All her meals are sent to her room from the hospital kitchen, though Latasiewicz also has home-cooked Polish goodies brought to her by the Polish staffers she's befriended.
It's also been a place of firsts for her. One of Latasiewicz's therapists is Mexican and brings her tacos and soups.
On most days, Latasiewicz attends a session where, among helping her do other stretches and exercises, a therapist unfurls her left hand's curled fingers and aids her as she stands up for a moment.
"This is the straightest I've seen you in a long time," physical therapy assistant Jennifer Rucinski said during a recent session as Latasiewicz held on to her two therapists.
The rest of the day is unscheduled, with her looking out the window to the parking lot and wheeling herself on what she calls her "Mercedes" throughout the fifth floor, where patients typically recover from surgery. Most people there stay for a few days. Because she watches the staff all day, Latasiewicz knows many of the secret codes to enter locked doors.
She doesn't venture beyond the fifth floor unless an aide is with her. On the main floor, she tours the hospital gift shop to buy small toys and trinkets for her two grandchildren and she relaxes in the hospital's garden — one of the only places she can sit in the sun and take in the fresh air.
When Latasiewicz knows her son is coming (he visits at least once a week), she waits anxiously by the elevator. When he leaves, she wheels herself back to wave as the doors close.
As long as she's an admitted patient, she can't leave the hospital. Latasiewicz, who cooked holiday feasts in the past, has now missed two Christmases, along with birthdays and her 8-year-old granddaughter's First Communion.
"They came after the party," she said matter-of-factly.
At the hospital, though, staffers have celebrated holidays with her and marked special occasions, including her first anniversary there. They plan to mark her second anniversary this week with a party. The Polish nurses and assistants plan to serve kolacky pastries and sandwiches made with Polish ham.
"Obviously it's not our intent to keep her here forever, but when she would leave, it will be like losing a family member," Murphy said.
Peter Latasiewicz is realistic and knows his mother can't live in the hospital indefinitely.
"One day, I know it will come," he said. "You expect it. I hope not soon."
Meanwhile, his mother remains optimistic, as she gets stronger and remembers the life of independence she had.
"I would like to get well and go home," she said softly.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times