Last month, a 13- year-old girl, Jahi McMath, went into Children’s Hospital of Oakland, Calif., for a tonsillectomy and ended up brain dead after the procedure. She has been on life support for the last several weeks.
Brain dead, in medical terminology, is equivalent to death. But this case has once again raised questions about what constitutes life and death, and whether modern medical technology, such as ventilators, can truly be “sustaining life.” These questions have been raised before, most notably in the case of Terri Schiavo of St. Petersburg, Fla., whose family engaged in a lengthy legal battle for her prolonged life support after she fell into a persistent vegetative state in 1990.
Arthur Caplan, director of the Division of Medical Ethics at New York University Langone Medical Center said, “I think these cases have been botched, horribly. They’re giving the impression that dead people can come back to life.” The term “life support” is also a misnomer in these cases, the experts say, because those who are brain dead have no life to sustain.
On December 12, doctors in Oakland declared Jahi to be brain dead; this was three days after she underwent surgery to remove her tonsils, adenoids, and extra sinus tissues, which doctors thought were causing sleep apnea.
The girl’s mother, Nailah Winkfield, says that Jahi still shows signs of life and Winkfield has continued to fight to have her daughter moved to a long-term care facility. For a patient to be transferred to such a facility, Children’s Hospital would have to perform a tracheotomy and gastrostomy, which is the insertion of tubes, the former for an airway and the latter for feeding through the stomach.
However, the hospital says it does not believe that performing such a procedure on a deceased person is an appropriate medical practice. A death certificate was issued for Jahi dated Dec. 12, 2013.
The family has been fighting the hospital to keep Jahi on the ventilator, a machine designed to move air in and out of the lungs. Her family maintains that as long as her heart is beating, the girl is still alive.
On Sunday, the hospital released Jahi to the Alameda County Coroner’s Office, which in turn released her to her family. It is not known which facility Jahi will be transferred to. Family lawyer Christopher Dolan said they have received hundreds of threatening emails after the widespread media attention of the case, and they are therefore keeping the location of the facility a secret.
Winkfield had this to say after the court ruled in her favor, permitting Jahi to be released to her:
“Because it’s for my daughter. And when you love your children the way I love mine, you go above and beyond. I’m just happy that I know now through the courts, and they’re making it known, that the parents do have rights.”
S.C. Rhyne is a blogger and novelist in New York City. Follow the author on twitter @ReporterandGirl or on Facebook.com/TheReporterandTheGirl and visit her website at www.SCRhyne.com