Brain Death and a Family’s Struggle

The question of brain death and a families struggleThe subject of brain death is a very complicated and ethically charged subject. As humans continue to make advances in medicine and technology, topics such as brain death become more, and more complicated. However, no matter how many technological or medical advances are made, there are some things in this world that are slow to change, and some that do not change at all. Our humanity and our ability to feel for those we care for is one thing that may never change. How a family deals with the loss of a member is a complexity that has long been studied, but is too intricate to be completely defined or explained in a textbook. There are many, external and internal, factors involved in the process of grieving. This is why the handling of a family and their attempts to deal with the diagnosis of brain death, in a loved one (especially a child), should be managed with sensitivity. It should not be a matter for casual commentary.

The subject of brain death has come up recently due to the case of 13-year-old Jahi McMath. McMath underwent surgery Dec. 9, to remove her tonsils. The surgery, which was supposed to be “routine” resulted in some complications. McMath began bleeding profusely not long after entering the recovery room. Despite interventions by hospital staff, McMath went into cardiac arrest.

On Dec. 12 hospital personnel reported that McMath had been placed on a ventilator and was declared brain-dead.

According to the National Library of medicine, brain death is the “irreversible loss of all functions of the brain, including the brain stem”. The brain-stem is the part of the brain that controls the involuntary muscles. It allows for breathing, blood circulation, and digestion; all without it being thought about. Brain death is legally and clinically dead. It cannot be reversed since there is absolutely no aspect of the brain that is functioning. Any measures of life support are futile at this point, therefore, doctors are not legally obligated to continue any treatment.

Personnel at Children’s Hospital of Oakland discussed with the family of McMath the removal of the ventilator, the Thursday following the determination of brain death. The family immediately requested a second opinion, which was provided.

The conclusion drawn by most medical studies, after much research on the subject, is that the first step of grieving is denial. Struggling to fully grasp the idea of their child’s death, the family of Jahi McMath, has tried any means possible to prevent the hospital from removing the ventilator.

The family has taken the case to the courts. On Friday, after reviewing the information provided, Superior Court Judge, Evelio Grillo, ordered the hospital to keep Jahi on life support.  There is to be further examination of the girl by a court appointed neurologist.

In a memorandum presented in court the hospital said, “Ms. McMath is dead and cannot be brought back to life.”

Since the McMath case gained attention, there have been many commentaries about how the girl’s family should simple let go. “Brain death is death”, many say. However, as Jahi’s family struggles to cope, perhaps it is not the concept of brain death that they are struggling with, but a little thing called trust.

According to the family’s attorney, Christopher Dolan, the family has requested testing by a doctor not employed by the Children’s Hospital of Oakland, because there is a belief that the hospital physicians are not “sufficiently independent”. “There is mistrust and there is conflict of interest,” says Dolan.

Racism and prejudice is a touchy topic that people often try to keep out of the picture. However, because it was an integral part of the American past, its social effects will always be present.  That being said, there have been medical studies concerning the “trust dilemma”. The “trust dilemma” is the belief that African-Americans do not trust medical professionals. In an effort to understand disparities in health care in America, researchers conducted a study of African-Americans. The conclusion drawn from the study was that many African-Americans worry about healthcare professionals overlooking their issues because of racial bias and lack of knowledge.

There is no way of telling what is going through the minds of the members of Jahi McMath’s family. That is, unless one sits down with them to fully assess the situation. However, sometimes in life, in order to obtain closure, one must first do everything that is deemed possible. That is one right all humanity must take advantage of.

As mentioned before, there are many external and internal factors involved in the grieving process. As humans, it is easy for there to be quick judgments about a number of topics. When it comes to something as sensitive as the topic of brain death, strong opinions may come off as insensitive and cruel. How a family decides to handle the determination that a loved one is brain-dead is their decision.

By Earnestine Jones



Donor Recovery