Brain Death for Teen Girl After Tonsillectomy

brain deathA 13-year-old girl has suffered brain death after undergoing a tonsillectomy at an Oakland hospital last week. What was supposed to be a routine operation that required an overnight stay ended up going horribly wrong.

Jahi McMath underwent tonsil removal in addition to an adenoidectomy Monday, December 9th, at Oakland Children’s Hospital in Oakland, California. McMath suffered from sleep apnea, which causes breathing to stop and pause during the sleep cycle. This can cause daytime drowsiness. The surgeries were to correct this chronic condition but sadly, both resulted in brain death.

The complications from McMath’s surgery started when she began bleeding heavily from her nose and mouth post surgery. She started spitting up big blood clots, which were collected in cups and measured. But shortly after, the girl went into cardiac arrest. Reviving her was successful but the damage had already been done. The brain cannot function without oxygen for long. By Wednesday, her brain began swelling and brain death was announced. She was placed on life support Thursday.

The ordeal has angered McMath’s mother, Nailah Winkfield, who reportedly claims the hospital is forcing her to make a choice whether to take her daughter off life support: “They just have a social worker follow me around all day long asking me ‘do you have any other family that needs to see her?’ like trying to put a rush on it.” Winkfield intends to keep McMath on life support and will keep her on throughout the holidays if necessary.

McMath’s family is reportedly complaining that hospital officials are forcing them to leave the hospital and has prevented them from speaking with hospital authorities.

The girl’s grandmother, Sandra Chatman, reportedly told news outlets that her granddaughter had been nervous about her surgery. To reassure the girl, Winkfield gave the girl’s pearl earrings to Chatman to hold on to until she woke up from surgery.

Says Chatman, “It’s so hard to look at them. I get choked up. I’ll keep them for a lifetime. In every purse I carry. They will always be with me.”

Although both mother and grandmother blame the hospital for the tragedy, Melina Kriegel, a representative for Oakland Children’s Hospital reportedly said, “We will certainly investigate what happened. In any surgery there are risks and there can be unexpected, unanticipated complications.”

Surgery Risks

Postoperative mortality, which means death within two weeks of surgery, can occur when there are complications in post surgery.  According to a survey conducted through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in-hospital tonsillectomies have declined since the 1990’s for children under 18. McMath’s case is unique because she had an adenoidectomy with a tonsillectomy so complications from either surgery would be difficult to ascertain but hopefully there will be definitive answers from the Oakland Children’s Hospital after they conduct their investigation into McMath’s death.

In McMath’s case, there could have been several factors that contributed to brain death. Every patient responds differently to anesthesia and surgery and it is difficult to predict which patient will have complications post surgery. There is no guarantee of zero complications as every surgery carries with it some risks. The National Institutes of Health states in a published study that “a preoperative diagnosis of obstructive sleep apnea was not associated with increased risk of death or anoxic brain injury.”

By Juana Poareo

International Business Times
Medical Daily
National Institutes of Health
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 

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