Brain death is proving to be not so simple after a family have won the right to keep their daughter alive with a breathing tube. The Californian teen went into hospital for a routine procedure, but the surgery did not quite go to plan. During her tonsillectomy, the 13-year-old bled and suffered a heart attack. Doctors revived her, but she was pronounced brain dead on December 12.
Jahi McMath has been on life support ever since, with a breathing tube to help her. Children’s Hospital of Oaklands made the decision that she was dead and no longer needed the care and was going to remove the breathing tube. However, the teenager’s mother put up a fight and took the hospital to court for preventative action.
McMath’s mother explained that she believed her daughter was alive. She can breathe and her heart is beating, which means that there is still some life there. The hospital does not want to give false hope, though, despite understanding Nailah Winkfield’s feelings.
The court ruled in Winkfield’s favor, giving her until Monday. Then she would be able to get her second opinion, which would be from a court-approved neurologist. The neurologist would determine whether the 13-year-old really is dead, or whether there is any brain activity and she will recover.
It would seem that by winning the right to keep the daughter alive, the family have proven that brain death is not so simple. The neurologist will have to determine whether the whole brain, including the stem, has stopped working, or whether there is still some activity within it. If there is no activity, it is likely that they will rule in favor of the hospital and stop life support.
McMath’s doctor determined that the whole brain had stopped functioning. He explained to the court that there was no possibility that the condition would reverse, or that she would recover. The hospital had no legal responsibility to keep her alive for a prolonged length of time, and there was no justification for more medical treatments.
Determining whether someone is brain dead is not a minor matter. Generally, hospitals will have two specialist teams running tests. They determine independently whether a patient still has brain activity. Evaluations are carried out at different times—12 hours apart—in the case of a child being the patient.
That being said, only one percent of deaths are due to patients being brain dead. Most patients die due to lung or heart failure. Brain death is still a relevantly new term, coined in 1981 during a presidential panel. By this point advancements in medical technology meant that a life could be sustained for a longer period of time, even if they would not have lived without it. The report by the panel determined that death could occur if there was an “irreversible cessation” of all brain functions, including the stem. This was used to draft the Uniform Determination of Death Act.
For now, the family have won the right to keep the daughter alive, proving that brain death is not so simple. Time will tell whether McMath will be allowed to remain on life support or not.
By Alexandria Ingham