Jahi McMath Tragedy and Childhood Obesity

Was Jahi McMath's weight to blame? Or was it just a side effect of the real culprit, Pediatric Obstructive Sleep Apnea?

Jahi McMath and Childhood ObesityJahi McMath’s story is a tragic one. A girl goes in for what most consider a routine surgery, only to end up brain-dead with no hope for recovery. The conversation about McMath has polarized the nation. In those debates taking place on many sites, the question arises about her weight, and if that played a role in the complications which have ultimately ended this child’s life. The case of Jahi McMath has raised the ugly spectre of childhood obesity once again.

McMath’s family has been reportedly criticized about her weight and lifestyle. This caused the family to release a statement through their attorney defending McMath and themselves.

The pictures of McMath show a happy, smiling teenager, who also appears rather heavy for her age. This has led to the speculation by some that her weight contributed to pediatric obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), or to the cardiac arrest following the surgery. It is true that obesity in a leading reason for sleep apnea in adults; fat can deposit around the throat and neck, which can restrict airflow.

However, for children, sleep apnea can stem from far different circumstances resulting in varying consequences. OSA in children is related to several factors: race, Down Syndrome, and weight, as well as issues like inflamed tonsils. McMath’s infected tonsils were a contributing cause of her OSA, hence the surgery. This isn’t to say McMath’s weight had nothing to do with her OSA, but her OSA needs to be factored into her weight. McMath may have fallen victim to a vicious cycle between two competing ailments, and this cycle cost her life.

Obstructive sleep apnea in children can be related to a condition known as hypothyroidism. Hypothyroidism can affect a person’s energy levels and ability to regulate weight. For people who suffer from hypothyroidism, the answer is not as simple as eating healthily and getting some exercise, because hypothyroidism reduces the basal metabolic rate (BMR), which can lead to weight gain. Furthermore, weight gain from hypothyroidism may not always due to the accumulation of excess fat, but retention of water and salt. Once someone has gained the weight, hypothyroidism can make it very hard to lose.

Simply looking at a picture of McMath and claiming her problems were all due to her weight is unfair, because a picture cannot give a full medical diagnosis or history. While childhood obesity may have been a part in the McMath tragedy, it cannot be determined as the definitive cause.

OSA creates many other complications in both adults and children, and any and all potentially played a role in McMath’s failed surgery and resulting brain death. Aside from the daytime sleepiness and moodiness, OSA causes a depletion in blood oxygen saturation, which can lead to high blood pressure, cardiac issues and stroke. There is no way to know if McMath was affected by these other issues prior to, or immediately following, her surgery.

Regardless of what caused McMatch to hemorrhage and ultimately fall victim to cardiac arrest, speculating the impact her weight had on the outcome of her surgery does no good. Childhood obesity is an issue in the United States, but to directly attribute obesity to the McMath tragedy without knowing if it truly was a cause creates nothing more than a lot of unnecessary pain for a family already suffering the devastating loss of a child. No amount of speculation or assumption will bring Jahi McMath back.

Editorial by Heather Pilkinton


Mayo Clinic
National Institute of Health
WebMD Hypothyroidism
American Thyroid Association
Mercury News

15 Responses to Jahi McMath Tragedy and Childhood Obesity

  1. emiy giles March 1, 2014 at 3:36 pm

    Osa and hypothyroidism can run together sometimes. The way you set your article up is misleading at the best. You have no idea if jahia had hypothyroidism, but you have slanted it so it can confuse the reader. As jdoe said, if the thyroid was an issue, the doctors would have done a test on the levels. You probably should not have mentioned the thyroid at all since you did not research your facts. Nor could you because the family refuses to let the hospital say anything. They want to accuse the doctors and hospita, but not allow the hospital to say anything. Hopefully, this family gets hit with a slander suit by the hospital, its doctors and nurses.

  2. emiy giles March 1, 2014 at 3:28 pm

    The second sentence implies her surgery was routine.

  3. Kelly V. January 24, 2014 at 6:33 pm

    “A girl goes in for what most consider a routine surgery, only to end up brain-dead with no hope for recovery.” I think it was right here that you stated “most consider routine”. Maybe just a tonsillectomy is considered routine, but not everything else! Plus, agreed with Dr.Jones a sleep study should have been done if it wasn’t and she should have been sleeping with a Cpap machine to take stress off her heart even before surgery. Also there are reports that this child is diabetic! It sounds like a bad surgical candidate anyway.

  4. Christine B. January 17, 2014 at 6:06 pm

    You need to do better research. Jahi’s surgery was not “routine” it was a complicated surgery to remove tonsils, adenoids, uvula and sinus tissue. Her grandmother said in a television interview that Jahi was talking, laughing asking for a popscicle and that the grandmother and Jahi herself had used the suction. Neither the grandmother nor Jahi are licensed to practice medicine, thus opening the door that those actions were complicit in causing the bleeding that cost that child her life. If you are going to write an article get your facts first.

    • Heather Pilkinton January 17, 2014 at 6:14 pm

      Where in this article did I say the surgery was routine? I never made that claim. I wasn’t talking about the incident that led to the bleeding, either. I was addressing one specific issue – as to whether her weight was a contributing factor to the need for the surgery in the first place.

  5. jdoe January 15, 2014 at 8:38 pm

    dear god is this writer an idiot? I am hypothyroid and anytime blood work is done thyroid stimulating hormone levels are checked. If she was going to go in for surgery you can bet her TSH was tested. It is easily treatable for $4 a month with hormone replacement therapy

    • Heather Pilkinton January 17, 2014 at 6:16 pm

      That was not what was said in the article; what was said was that OSA and hypothyroidism can be often found together in children, and that one can be a contributing factor to the other. I never made a claim that her levels weren’t tested or treated; just that they were possible contributing factors to her weight. Nothing more.

  6. Alexandra January 13, 2014 at 6:56 pm

    My sister didn’t have sleep apnea until she got to be morbidly obese. Now she requires a C-PAP. She’s 39.

  7. Grammar Nazi January 10, 2014 at 2:22 pm

    “Down” Syndrome and other typos make me feel that whoever wrote this is not credible. Get an editor.

    • SuzieTampa January 11, 2014 at 6:13 pm

      Down syndrome is the preferred usage. I’m a retired editor.

  8. Diana January 4, 2014 at 8:07 pm

    I don’t always believe everything I hear. I would look into all aspects of what could have caused this. Who knows what could have happened. I wouldn’t rule anyting out and don’t focus on someone being over weight. There are over weight children and adults that are healthy and don’t have any health issues. I feel for the family and my heart goes out to them. There is nothing worse than losing your child to something you never thought twice about.

  9. Snuptser One January 4, 2014 at 5:54 pm

    Interesting how we label “Lack of Self Control” a disease…wow, who then is the responsible one?

  10. Mack Jones, MD January 4, 2014 at 9:16 am

    Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), a hereditary disease involving malfunctioning respiratory brainstemm neurons commonly causes obesity, which tends to magnify or worsen the sleep apnea. The McMaths should have sleep tests and when positive, treat their own OSA with CPAP.
    BTW, OSA is the underlying cause of the obesity epidemc.

  11. Cynthia January 4, 2014 at 4:07 am

    There is a typo in the beginning of the last paragraph. C

  12. Liv January 3, 2014 at 8:11 pm

    I appreciate your thoughtful remarks. it should also be noted that both jahi’s parents appear to be obese, so heredity plays a role. it is shameful that so many haters have overly focused on this aspect of the situation. I do wonder if Cpap therapy was considered to manage the sleep apnea.


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