Undocumented immigrant's hospital stay stretches to 2 years

(Zbigniew Bzdak/Tribune)

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.