Attorneys for St. Petersburg’s Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital rested their case this week in a $220 million lawsuit chronicled in Netflix’s Take Care of Maya, but not before some last-minute controversy.
Gregory Anderson, lead counsel for the Kowalski family, told a Sarasota courtroom Friday, Oct. 27, that Maya’s complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS) worsened due to stress caused by the trial. He said the girl at the center of the lawsuit and documentary would miss the next several days.
“Maya has CRPS lesions reappearing,” Anderson said. “It’s not good.”
All Children’s attorneys returned to court Monday, Oct. 30, with social media images taken that weekend showing Maya attending her homecoming dance and Halloween events. “This is the life of Maya Kowalski today,” Ethan Shapiro told the judge.
“We did not aggravate a pre-existing condition. She’s at her prom, she’s out in heels … it’s in complete contradiction to her testimony.”
Jurors have heard nearly six weeks of testimony in a case that has garnered international headlines. All Children’s attorneys rested their case Nov. 1 after two weeks of presenting evidence and calling witnesses that refuted the prosecution’s claims.
Shapiro and Howard Hunter, lead counsel for the hospital, have long stated that they took the case to court due to the “chilling effect” it has on state and national mandatory reporting requirements. The trial also offered the chance to present a side of the story left out of the Netflix documentary.
Jurors will hear closing arguments next week, and Shapiro expressed confidence in the hospital’s case. “The evidence that we’ve been able to put on … has shown Maya came to us in a horrible condition on a number of dangerous and unnecessary drugs,” he said.
“We were able to successfully wean her off those drugs and get her to a place where she can be like you see her today – walking in and out of court, going to homecoming and living a normal teenage life.”
Maya was 10 and in a wheelchair when she was admitted to All Children’s Hospital in October 2016 with debilitating stomach pain. Her parents claimed she was suffering from severe CRPS symptoms.
Hospital attorneys allege Maya’s mother, Beata Kowalski, demanded she receive high doses of ketamine. Hunter said Maya’s primary care doctor gave her 12 times the “safe and effective” dose of the powerful dissociative anesthetic the day before her fateful trip to St. Petersburg.
Hunter said a malnourished Maya was also on 20 other medications at the time. All Children’s officials suspected child abuse and notified state authorities.
A judge ordered the hospital to shelter the girl. Beata hanged herself in the family’s Venice garage after 90 days without her daughter.
The Kowalskis claim the hospital falsely imprisoned, battered and misdiagnosed Maya. Hunter said local caregivers may have saved the girl’s life.
The defense’s case
Hunter noted that over 40 specialists from Lee to Hillsborough Counties believed there was a psychological component to Maya’s condition. Her father, Jack Kowalski, had those same suspicions.
All Children’s attorneys recently played a videotaped interview where Jack described researching Munchausen’s syndrome by proxy – a mental illness that causes caretakers to imagine or produce medical symptoms in someone else, typically their child, for attention and control.
“It was almost textbook of what we went through,” Jack said.
The defense presented several emails Beata drafted to update a since-deleted public WordPress blog she wrote in Maya’s voice between November 2015 and June 2016, before her stay at All Children’s. “If I was a horse, I would be comatosed or dead already,” Beata wrote of the ketamine treatments.
She also admitted that the narcotic was causing cognitive impairment and memory loss. “I’ve been very forgetful from the ketamine … sometimes I can’t tell if it’s a.m. or p.m.,” Beata wrote in Maya’s voice. “Everything’s a blur.”
Pediatric nurse Kelly Thatcher testified that Beata offered Valium, a powerful sedative and antianxiety medication, to Maya as a reward during her time in the intensive care unit. “I stopped in my tracks and thought, ‘Did she just say that?'” Thatcher said.
“Like, Maya has laid here perfectly,” she recalled. “We never offer controlled substances to our patients for rewards.”
Thatcher also testified that Beata suggested placing Maya in hospice – a type of health care reserved for terminally ill patients. “I was very chilled when she said this because there was nothing … that made me think she was at risk of dying.”
Nurse practitioner Johanna Klink said Maya told her she was “tired of all these lies; my life is a lie.” Klink believed it was “a cry for help” and said the girl sounded “desperate.”
She asked Maya to elaborate and said the girl started to respond until Beata entered the room. Klink said the girl became withdrawn, and they never continued the conversation.
Anderson refuted the defense’s claims that Maya’s health drastically improved after her stay at the hospital. He said the girl “almost died after one relapse” that required a stay at Arnold Palmer’s Children’s Hospital in Orlando and a feeding tube to help mitigate weight loss.
“CRPS patients always have a little bit of pain,” Anderson said. “But it does come and go, and this is one of the elusive and frankly frustrating things about the disease.”
Attorneys expect to present closing arguments early next week.