Emily Maloney grew up around Chicago, in places like Oak Park, River Forest and then Lake Forest. 

In River Forest, as an elementary schooler, she lived across the street from a house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright that tourists from other countries often visit.

That geographic convenience helped her and her little brother hatch a plan to open a lemonade stand, and then overcharge the summer travelers who didn’t know how much a normal glass should cost. 

“This is the early ’90s – $2 a glass is pretty outrageous. We’d make hundreds of dollars a day,” Maloney said with a laugh. “People would be like ‘Oh, we want to take a picture with the cute American kids.’ We sold it. We were flush with cash, as children.” 

Little did she know at the time, but she could have used some of that cash down the road. 

Flash forward about 10 years, and Maloney is a college student in Iowa, pushed to the brink of exhaustion and despair by never-ending medical and mental health problems, drowning in a sea of medications prescribed by pill-happy doctors.

She survived a suicide attempt, only to be saddled with the burden of paying off debt from that hospital stay for what she thought would be the rest of her life. In a cruel twist of irony, she ended up working all kinds of minimum wage jobs in hospitals, of all places, to make those monthly payments. But in those jobs, she saw many, many other people struggling with the same issue: indescribable pain in need of medical attention, but no money to pay for care. 

“I couldn’t imagine the amount of money I’d spent – the debt I’d incurred – in attempting to end my life,” she wrote in her debut book, a collection of personal essays titled Cost of Living. “Suicide should be cheaper, I remembered thinking.” 

Emily Maloney Credit: Joanna Eldredge Morrissey

Flash forward again, this time to 2023, and Maloney is happily living with her partner in Evanston. She no longer has the medical debt she took on as a 19-year-old. She has a master of fine arts degree, and she has just published her first book, something that seemed impossible not too long ago. But she still thinks about all those people she saw in emergency rooms, who needed help and could not pay the cost of being alive. 

The journey to Evanston 

Maloney moved to Lake Forest when she was in middle school. She remembers spending time in Evanston in high school and growing fond of the city’s businesses and art scene.

“Evanston’s always held a particular pull for me. Starting at the tail end of junior high, I would take the train to Evanston and skulk around, go to coffee shops,” she said. “I spent a lot of time at Vogue Fabrics because I used to make all the things that I wore. And so it was a place I went to that really made sense to me in a way that the North Shore maybe didn’t as much.” 

She eventually wound up in Pittsburgh for graduate school, where she wrote the first draft of Cost of Living as her thesis. As part of that academic program, Maloney and her classmates all went to New York to meet with agents and editors, and also pitch their own potential ideas. She found her own agent, whom she still works with today, on that trip. 

While she was working in hospitals, she saw so many people experiencing similar burdens of cost and access to quality health care that she finally decided “I need to be writing about this.” So she started writing essays about everything she observed at work, which birthed the project that eventually became her thesis, and later her first book.

Maloney’s book of essays, published in 2022, Credit: emilymaloney.net

“It wasn’t until I applied to graduate school and started getting in that I even thought that writing was something I could be doing because prior to that point, it was just like ‘Well, you know, maybe I’ll work on this,’” Maloney said. “And it just took me a really long time, and I really just didn’t know what I was doing most of the time. But I kept at it.” 

After leaving Pittsburgh, Maloney and her husband found a place in Evanston and decided to settle into life in town, where they have now been living for almost eight years. They live in a tight-knit community, where they and their neighbors take turns hosting “soup nights” where they debate local politics and chat about things happening around town.

“Even I, noted recluse, have gotten to know people in our neighborhood through soup night,” she said. “It’s been really, really lovely.” 

A ‘broken’ system

Maloney has a slew of doctor friends who are all going part-time in their work, or even quitting the profession entirely, because of the pressure put on them and the often back-breaking demands of working in health care, especially during a pandemic.

As a result, the medical industry has to adapt by providing better support for workers and more residency spots for recently graduated students. Without those measures, more and more people will continue leaving the field without enough others to take their place, according to Maloney.

For the most part, that will require fundamental changes in policies and laws on a widespread, national scale, she said.

“We will see how care evolves to meet the needs of the people who live here,” she said. “I can’t speak to some of the other issues, but I do feel that the best thing we can do is try and attack things on a national level, rather than a local level.” 

But as things currently stand, nurses, doctors and other medical staff are overworked and do not have time to process their jobs or room to breathe. And, at the same time, very few people have a good understanding of how the entire system works and where to go to get the care they need when they need it. 

When those two situations clash, Maloney said, health care workers often struggle to empathize with people who may not understand how a hospital operates or the kind of care that can be provided in an emergency room.

“We just have really low health literacy, and that, combined with low health access, creates a lot of problems,” Maloney said. “Until we solve those problems, we’re going to still suffer from this lack of empathy that is rooted in the lack of support that we provide to health care providers.” 

Cost of Living” is available at local booksellers Bookends & Beginnings and Squeezebox Books and Music. The paperback releases on Feb. 7.

Duncan Agnew

Duncan Agnew covers Evanston public schools, affordable housing, City Hall and more for the RoundTable. He also writes long-form investigations, features and the morning email newsletter three times a...

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