As the Jahi McMath case has unfolded, I have watched how her parents have not been able to give up on her, feeling a mixture of empathy and frustration. I have empathized with the pain that they must feeling as they grieve over the tragic, senseless loss of their beautiful daughter; but I have also felt frustration with the medical professionals who seemingly have allowed them to continue in the fantasy that she will somehow undergo a miraculous recovery. Why is no one taking them aside and telling them bluntly that they must give up? Surely it would be kinder than allowing them to have false hope? These have been my feelings until this morning. Then, something changed that allowed me to see the case through their eyes: I learned about the case of Steven Thorpe.
Steven Thorpe was a seventeen-year-old boy who suffered from horrific trauma in a car crash. After the accident, he was placed in a medically-induce coma. However, his doctors told the young man’s family that he would never recover because he had no brain activity and was considered to be brain dead, just like Jahi McMath. His doctors suggested that the family should put some thought towards donating his organs and then turning off the life-support machine that was keeping his body alive.
But Steven’s parents weren’t convinced. His father believed that he was still there and he wanted to get a second opinion. He asked a private GP named Julia Piper to do one more check on his son, who was a patient at University Hospital in Coventry, West Midlands, in England. Because of his father’s persistence, the hospital allowed a neurologist to check him one more time and the result was miraculous. The doctor was able to detect faint brain waves that had not been detected before. Steven had a chance at recovery, no matter how slim it might have been, so the decision was made to attempt to bring him out of his coma.
Just five short weeks later, he was discharged from the hospital having made a nearly-complete recovery.
So, does this mean that Jahi McMath will recover? No. Her body has deteriorated significantly since the 13-year-old was declared brain dead on December 12. Because of the controversy surrounding her case she has no doubt been checked for any signs of brain activity multiple times. It is certain that it only a matter of time before even the extreme measures that are currently being used to give her lifeless body the appearance of living will not be able to overcome the derangement that exists in a body with no brain activity available to regulate it.
However, even though she is well and truly dead at this point, this doesn’t mean that Jahi’s parents were wrong to try to exhaust every possible means of giving her a chance. Why? Because the case of Steven Thorpe illustrates a couple of very important points. One is the fact that doctors are not gods. Mistakes in judgement are made. It was only right to make very certain that a correct diagnosis was made. A little girl’s life was hanging in the balance. And, two, no one is going to advocate for a patient more strongly than the people who know and love them well. That should not be ignored or dismissed because sometimes those intuitions are correct, like they were in the case of Steven.
No, I would argue that the parents of Jahi McMath did exactly the right thing in not giving up. It may have been a futile effort, but it was not the wrong choice. We should never become so cynical that we cannot hold out hope for a miracle.
Editorial by Nancy Schimelpfening