First Prize Winner of the 2018-19 Writing Contest

Erika Steiner, Class of 2021, reflects on her brief time in a French hospital after an allergic reaction. She participated in the Winter 2019 Paris: Cinema and Media Studies program.


These tiles were not what you’d expect. They were not white, cleaned with chemicals whose name I will never learn. These tiles were French, covered in the film of someone else’s day, tracked in on workers’ boots, rarely mopped because the point was moot. As an American, the stories written on these tiles are not what I expected to see in a hospital. I craved our sterile system. I did not realize how lucky we are.

When my tongue began to swell, I resented the old Parisian architecture that put me on the 6th floor without an elevator (5th floor if we’re being European, but we’re not European if that’s not abundantly clear). Half-running, preserving the oxygen that suddenly became scarce, I made it to the street only to realize I didn’t know where to turn. Dripping in sweat and privilege, I called an ambulance that didn’t give a shit that I was a foreigner. They gave me oxygen; they held my hand. Not once did they ask about how I was planning to pay. But the ambulance was a van; all I could think about was how small things were, how cramped I felt.

Cost of an uninsured ambulance ride in Chicago: 1200 USD


I’d had allergic reactions at home before, but I only had to go to a hospital twice. Once when I was four, and my dad had mistakenly placed my sister’s peanut butter and jelly sandwich in my bag. The other time I was twelve, and my best friend’s mom misread packaging. Now I was twenty, and I was a victim of my own short-sighted choice to ignore the ingredients list.

Cost of an emergency room visit for an allergic reaction: 1774 USD

I’ve never had to consider the cost; my life came first. An estimated 200 people in the United States suffer from fatal allergic reactions every year – how many of them died because they waited too long, unsure if it was necessary to incur the fees that come with these visits?


The triage room had seven chairs, none from this century. Four were broken in some way – missing an arm rest, tilted to the side, leaking filling from a gash, split in half – the other three were plastic and bolted to the floor. They formed a semi-circle, a support group for those who had been told there was no bed for them. After the doctor pumped me full of antihistamines and I could breathe at a ninety-degree angle, she pushed me to join them. They needed my bed, and I suppose I did not.

I stumbled to the group, wondering if I could hide my foreign identity. Americans Anonymous.

“Hi everyone, my name is Erika and je suis une… autre. »

They let me in.


I was healthy, but more importantly, I was frustrated. A man in the chair without an arm rest was yelling at every nurse who passed him. A woman with swollen feet cried softly as her husband rubbed her back, humming French lullabies under his breath. At hour three of waiting, another doctor told me there was no one to discharge me, so I’d have to wait. Exhausted and with nothing but a dead phone, I counted the tiles and hoped that I’d fall asleep without falling between the crack and the chair. I failed to do either.

At some point, a doctor came to assess the woman’s feet. Perhaps it was the Duolingo, or maybe I have a French 6th sense, or it could be because the French word for “Parkinson’s” is “Parkinson’s”, but I quickly realized that she was suffering from the same disease as my grandfather.

In the last few months of my grandpa’s life, he spent several nights on the witness stand. Pacing back and forth, I asked him to recount the day my dad was born in detail. I made him swear he would attend my high school graduation. I objected to any instance of speculation that this might be the end. We took brief recesses when the nurse would come and offer him ice chips. Court was held in the ICU, until we moved to a room with a larger window in the geriatric ward, and then settled finally in a hospice.

Cost of uninsured overnight hospital stay (19 nights): 39748 USD

Cost of uninsured hospice stay (3 nights): 2232 USD

Most end of life care in the United States is covered by Medicare, but eligibility comes down to income, age, and 10 years of social-security-tax-paying-employment status. The Affordable Care Act fought to expand Medicare and Medicaid, but the Supreme Court made it optional. In 18 states, my grandfather and the French woman would be required to fight for themselves until they could prove they checked every box to get appropriate care; even then, their families – my family – could be left in thousands of dollars of debt. Talk about holding court in an ICU.


A few nurses picked up the woman with swollen feet and tried to move her to the leaking chair, sending her husband on a hunt for a box to help elevate her legs. At one point she slipped and instinctively reached for my hand, intertwining her soul with my fingers for just a moment. She apologized quickly, but I smiled softly and squeezed her hand. “Ça va," I said with an utterly atrocious accent.

I had been in France for less than 72 hours, so all I knew how to say was this phrase, “It’s okay.” (Unfortunately, “You are so brave, your presence is fundamentally changing me. I will wait here forever if it means every doctor can help you feel better. Your family deserves that,” was not one of the 10 French phrases YouTube told me I needed to know before going abroad.)


Eventually, a woman came to help me fill out paperwork. As I walked to the office, I looked to the remaining support group members. Several of them nodded to me as they had with others who had left earlier. In many ways it seemed like an acquittal. The jury had decided I was free of suffering, but guilt hung in the air.

Just before I entered the exit, I glanced back towards the bed I had started in. In a wave of jealousy, I wished that I could have slept there rather than in the triage room. But I saw that my body had been replaced by a woman with bad chemical burns across her chest, a cleaning ‘accident’ someone told me.

Average wage of a hospital custodian: 12.49 USD per hour.

When I had a bed in the States, I never asked myself why they didn’t kick me out, why it wasn’t ‘needed’, why Chicago had a higher population density than Paris but fewer people who were getting medical care. I never put myself on the witness stand.


My arteries are filled with gratitude, my veins with anger. This hospital became my lungs, and as the truth began to bind to the frustration, I was reminded of all there is to be thankful for at home. Prompt care, a bed for myself, tiles that are so clean I look down and see my reflection. In Paris, where Narcissus could no longer see herself in the tiles, I learned appreciation.

But I also gained insight about our shortcomings. The cleaning woman in my (her) (our) bed did not have to make an economically conscious choice, her life and her well-being came first. American white tiles have designated caretakers who, ironically, cannot afford to tread on them when it really matters. These tiles have seen all of Paris, and every Parisian its caretaker – all may walk them, no matter their status.


“You’re a student, ouais?”

I nod.

“You owe nothing.”

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