June 18, 2024

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Stream It Or Skip It?

6 min read

Take Care of Maya (now on Netflix) is a heartbreaker of a documentary. The title stems from a prayer by Beata Kowalski, hoping for some relief for her severely ill daughter Maya; their story is undoubtedly tragic, here chronicled by director Henry Roosevelt in an act of activism, providing a platform for people who weren’t being heard, and suffered greatly as a result.   

The Gist: Beata’s mistake was – perhaps – being a little too pushy. It’s understandable, considering the circumstances: Her daughter was in pain. Beata knew what had to be done. She was a nurse, and understood the diagnosis and treatments and procedures better than most mothers bringing their children to the emergency room. Doctors and nurses at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg, Florida weren’t familiar with Maya’s condition, a rare condition known as Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS), so Beata asserted herself. Was she being “belligerent,” as hospital staff insisted? Or was she agitated at the sight of her daughter, suffering? 

Occam’s Razor says the latter is a perfectly reasonable explanation. But that apparently wasn’t taken into account – Beata and her husband Jack were barred from seeing Maya anyway. Dr. Sally Smith, director of Pinellas County’s child protective services, determined it was a case of Munchausen’s by proxy, a mental illness associated with “medical child abuse,” where a parent falsifies their child’s symptoms. Smith, hospital staff and detectives didn’t seem to want to listen to how the Kowalski family had spent several years managing Maya’s CRPS. Months prior, the girl suddenly began experiencing headaches and extreme pain in her arms and legs, and simply touching her skin was excruciating for her. They went from doctor to doctor with no answers; meanwhile, her muscle movement was impaired and she needed a wheelchair. They eventually found Dr. Anthony Kirkpatrick, who diagnosed CRPS and began treating her with ketamine, an anesthetic often used to manage pain (it also can cause hallucinations). Kirkpatrick suggested an experimental treatment that looks scary on paper: a self-explanatory “ketamine coma procedure” lasting five days. The treatment wasn’t legal in the U.S., so they flew to Mexico to get it done.

We see footage of Maya after recently emerging from the coma, her arms and legs contorting into odd shapes. It’s a side effect of the ketamine, and it’s a little disturbing to see. But it worked. Her pain remained in remission for several months until it returned with a vengeance, prompting her admission to the children’s hospital in October of 2016. Currently, as this documentary debuts, Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital faces an upcoming trial for battery and false imprisonment. The film shows us deposition footage in the case, which is the only time we see Dr. Sally Smith or other hospital or law enforcement representatives, who refused to participate in the documentary. We do meet Dr. Kirkpatrick, who seems credible. And a handful of the Kowalskis’ lawyers, the hiring of whom ended up being necessary. And another upsettingly necessary player, a newspaper journalist who reported on their story and found many, many others who faced similar predicaments locally and nationally (we hear from some of those families, too). 

We also get to know Maya, now a teenager, her father Jack and her younger brother Kyle very well, as they share their story. But where’s Beata? We hear her voice a lot, and see her in home videos – she meticulously documented the ordeal, keeping detailed journals and recording interactions with doctors and other involved individuals. Beata was accused of abusing her daughter. She could only talk to Maya briefly on the phone while being monitored by social workers. She knew Maya was being traumatized; the girl was in pain, not getting the treatment she needed, sitting in her hospital bed alone, unable to be comforted by her family, overhearing hospital staff say terrible things about her mother. After 87 days of not being able to see her suffering daughter, Beata died by suicide.  

What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: One thread in Take Care of Maya addresses how hospitals deflect responsibility when something potentially negligent occurs – a similar concern raised in Netflix documentary Capturing the Killer Nurse, where several hospitals shuffled a serial killer on and off their staff without reporting him, in an attempt to avoid a public-relations scandal. 

Performance Worth Watching: There’s no way to characterize Maya’s participation in this film as anything other than a selfless act of bravery. 

Memorable Dialogue: Journalist Daphne Chen rips the lid off: “I realized this was a lot bigger than just the Kowalskis.”

Sex and Skin: None.

Our Take: Yet another component of a broken healthcare system comes to light in Take Care of Maya – the power CPS agents have to break up healthy families on the basis of shaky evidence and subjective opinion. We’re aware of many flaws in the system, but for most of us, this is a new one. Roosevelt appears to be blaming a few failings, from sloppy procedure (more than one person claims that Dr. Sally Smith separated parents from children based on a 10-minute interview) to bad actors (one social worker had a history of abuse, and forced Maya to strip down to her underwear so she could take photos of her physical condition; Smith, to analyze her from a distance, seems less overtly malicious and more like someone who proclaims herself infallible, and is unwilling to admit a misdiagnosis). Adding to the frustration is how the Kowalski family further suffers thanks to a disempathetic legal system that allows the hospital to repeatedly delay the trial – it’s been dragged out for more than five years – and prolong the family’s suffering.

That’s why the Kowalskis’ infuriating story is an important one to tell; one hopes the trial – set to finally begin in Sept., 2023 – is a watershed for reform. This isn’t to say Take Care of Maya is without flaw, though. With hospital representatives refusing to be interviewed for the film – they make a statement, shared during the postscript – Roosevelt inevitably has to lean heavily on the Kowalskis’ perspective. We can see how situations like this occur, when CPS agents err on the side of “protecting the children,” a scenario the film describes simply as a “gray area” without much in the way of further information. The film lacks detail at times, raising questions that go unanswered, for example: Why did Maya have to go to Mexico for the ketamine treatment, and did the question of its legality have anything to do with the Munchausen’s diagnosis? (A quick Google search tells us the coma procedure isn’t an approved treatment in the U.S. yet.) 

The result is a film offering an emotional argument that could be rendered more effective with, say, some hard data about instances of CPS overreach in Florida and nationally, and a willingness to further explore those “gray areas.” Roosevelt’s use of staged scenes – e.g., Jack sadly scrolling through photos of his late wife on his phone – can be schmaltzy and unnecessarily manipulative. But you’ll be hard pressed to not empathize with Maya and her family as they work through years of grief while more powerful outside forces inflict further trauma upon them. Roosevelt’s use of Beata’s audio, video and written archive is the ace his hand – he uses one of the recordings to stage a “conversation” between Beata and Maya, giving  an opportunity to heal a little bit in the face of so much hardship. If that doesn’t break your heart, then nothing will. 

Our Call: STREAM IT. Take Care of Maya is an unmistakably moving documentary that shines a light on an apparently mostly unrecognized problem with the U.S. healthcare system.

John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

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