Montclair filmmaker’s hope: Help immigrant family in extraordinary struggle
by AMANDA VALENTOVIC
for Montclair Local
Estefania Mesa was having a routine C-section in July at Hoboken University Medical Center when the procedure went wrong and she was left without oxygen for nine minutes. As a result, Mesa was reduced to a vegetative state, while her family was left to care for her newborn daughter, Emma.
While searching for answers about what happened in the operating room, Mesa’s mother, Luz Vanegas, faced deportation to Colombia as an undocumented immigrant. In hopes of helping, Neil Grabowsky made a short film, “N.J. Mother of Newborn Fights for Life as Family Fights Deportation,” about the North Bergen family that he released online in October. (See the film on Vimeo or on Facebook.)
“I felt personally heartbroken over the story,” the Montclair filmmaker and photographer said. (Grabowsky has sometimes photographed stories for Montclair Local.) “I wanted to make a documentary if for no other reason than to help.”
Grabowsky heard about Mesa from a lawyer and friend. He reached out to Vanegas and to Mesa’s boyfriend, Eduardo Argueta, who is Emma’s father, and interviewed them in September.
Grabowsky also spoke with Daniela Solano Sarmiento, Mesa’s friend and an EMT in Jersey City and Union City, and with Michael Katz, a neurologist who has examined Mesa at the hospital.
Sarmiento explains the medical consequences of Mesa’s operation in the film.
“When you’re in an OR, even if they just give you a sedative, the first thing they do is have a monitor,” she tells Grabowsky. “A sedative drops your blood pressure or will slow down your heart rate. The anesthesiologist has to make sure that while she’s giving the sedative that person’s vitals are still stable.
“How did you not notice for nine minutes? Where were those machines? Why weren’t they making noise if Estefania’s heart had stopped?”
When Grabowsky conducted the interviews in September, the Hoboken hospital told Mesa’s family the incident was under investigation. The family members were unable to get all of her medical records, which they needed to be able to move her to a rehabilitation facility.
Vanegas was caring for both her daughter and granddaughter while facing deportation, despite being married to a United States citizen and filing a marriage petition two years ago.
“I want to be there with my daughter during her rehab,” Vanegas, who has three other children, says in the film. “And I also want to be the mom that my children expect me to be, being with them all the time. I want to be with my children, all of us together, which is what I have always wanted.”
Grabowsky has kept in touch with Vanegas and Argueta in the months since they initially met, speaking with them weekly. There have been some bright spots in the story’s development: Kessler Rehabilitation Center in West Orange accepted Mesa as a patient, and Vanegas has made progress with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in hopes of staying in the country, where she has lived for over 20 years.
“A lot of people found out about this, and I think the pressure on the hospital allowed her to transfer,” Grabowsky said. “Now she’s able to understand people talking to her.”
In coming weeks, he’s planning on sitting down with Vanegas, Argueta and Katz again to update the film.
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FILMING DURING A PANDEMIC
It’s not the first documentary Grabowsky has made, but COVID-19 made the process for this film different from his other work. While interviewing Mesa’s family at their home, Grabowsky wore a mask and sat more than 6 feet away.
He filmed the interviews himself, rather than bring his normal crew of three people. The footage was hand-delivered on a hard drive to his editor in Queens, and they worked together over Zoom on cutting it.
“Normally I would interview more people, but the last thing I wanted to do was compromise someone’s health,” Grabowsky said. “I could be a threat to [my two children], and I wanted to be very aware of that.”
Grabowsky served as the lighting director and director of photography while also doing the interviewing, so the pandemic limits changed the production value of the final product.
“We made the best of it,” he said. “I don’t think the story suffers. The tolerance for this type of production is higher now. It’s understood that this is what film looks like.”
The elements of Mesa’s circumstances and what she and her family are still going through are a microcosm of larger issues the United States is facing, most of all conversations about health care and immigration. But Grabowsky’s motivation was to help her rather than to make a statement.
“This wasn’t a political piece, but her situation is a result of the political situation we’re in,” he said. “I saw this as a story of ‘There are people in pain. We could do this differently.’ I don’t want to make a point; I think there are a lot of great people at the hospital. The bureaucracy just wouldn’t allow them to find out what happened.”
Mesa has a long road to recovery ahead of her. Grabowsky plans on following her.
“This is one of those things that’s not over until it’s over,” he said. “She has a long, difficult fight ahead of her, and it’s a house of cards. I’d like to follow them until there’s a conclusion.
“In three or four years we may show this and see her taking care of her daughter. That would be an amazing story to tell, and I’m looking forward to doing it.”