The brain death of 13-year-old Jahi McMath is a quandary for both her parents and the hospital. The mere definition of brain death is a part of the dilemma. Many lay people believe that when someone is brain-dead, that a miracle of nature or science can bring the person back, as long as they are kept artificially alive on oxygen tanks and ventilators.
McMath was in the hospital for a tonsillectomy to cure her sleep apnea. The procedure required removing the adenoids and any extra tissue that might be blocking her nasal passages. On December 12th, three days after the procedure, McMath had severe bleeding and a heart attack. McMath had brain swelling and was pronounced brain-dead that same day.
Doctors and officials of the hospital are very upset with the condition of McMath, however, they have stated that although the ventilator keeps oxygen flowing and the heart ticking, the brain damage is not reversible and will not allow recovery of life.
Nailah Winkfield, McMath’s mother, has posited that a miracle could still occur for her daughter, and she wishes to relocate McMath to extended nursing care as soon as is possible. Winkfield believes the hospital has no business deciding whether or not to take the child off the life support systems. She has stated that a nursing facility is willing to take her daughter, but she will need surgical procedures to be ready for the move, including a gastrostomy tube and a tracheotomy.
Children’s Hospital of Oakland does not want to give McMath’s family any false hopes, as the child will not likely recover after brain death. The brain death of McMath is a quandary for this reason. The hospital will allow McMath to be moved to another facility, however, they will not perform any more procedures on her, since they do not believe it is appropriate to perform surgery on a person considered dead.
The judge in Oakland allowed for McMath to continue on life support until December 30th at 5 p.m. The Children’s Hospital will cooperate as long as the teen can be moved legally and with surgical procedures being performed by outside surgeons. The deadline is coming up very soon for a family that would like to have the transport of their daughter take place before the date.
Winkfield refuses to give up hope, “I would probably need my child’s heart to stop to show me that she was dead,” Winkfield said. “Her heart was still beating, so there’s still life there.”
There lies the rub, as McMath’s heart is beating, but she is not medically “alive.” According to physicians at the Children’s Hospital in Oakland, McMath is not going to come back from brain death. This is hard to accept for Winkfield and her family, so she is going the distance to keep her daughter in a position in hopes of her daughter making a recovery.
Arthur Caplan, director of the Division of Medical Ethics at NYU Langone Medical Center, has said that it does the families of brain dead patients no favors to ask if they would like to keep their loved ones on life support to keep the patient artificially breathing and the heart operating. He says doctors should be more transparent about the finality of brain death.
The brain death of Jahi McMath is a quandary, one that is relatively new to modern science. The debate will continue into the new medical frontier.
By Lisa M Pickering