Anyone who hears about the tragic death of a 13-year-old California girl after a routine tonsil-removal surgery has to feel for the grieving parents who don’t want her removed from life support. The McMaths refuse to believe that their daughter Jahi, who was declared brain dead more than a week ago, is truly dead because machines are keeping her other organs alive.
“How could you not let me have my kid for Christmas?” said Nailah Winkfield, McMath’s mother, in an interview with local reporters. “And this is Children’s Hospital, supposed to be so compassionate, so loving, and I asked, can my daughter just live a few more days? Because she is living.”
McMath was declared brain dead more than a week ago, and her family has been fighting with hospital staff at Children’s Hospital & Research Center in Oakland to keep her body in a viable state and have her provided with nutrition via a feeding tube.
“To me, it just looks like she’s at peace and she’s resting,” said Jahi’s uncle Omari Sealey, “and when she’s done going through the traumatic stuff that her body’s going through right now, and she feels well enough, she’ll wake up.”
But McMath is dead—as horrible as that is for her family to fathom—and leaving her body attached to machines is akin to allowing a corpse remain in a hospital bed without a proper burial. Perhaps hospitals should stop calling such care “life support” since it’s not actually supporting any living person, just a body.
“This case is so sad it is almost beyond description,” wrote Arthur Caplan, head of the division of medical ethics at NYU Langone Medical Center in a blog he posted Thursday on the NBC News website. “But that fact should not be a reason to take the view that we don’t know what to do when someone is pronounced brain dead. Brain dead is dead.”
Brain dead means the body can’t breathe on its own, and that person will never return to consciousness or open her eyes again. This is not even akin to a vegetative state or a deep coma; it’s a state of total and absolute nothingness with no hope at all of a miracle resurrection.
But that’s what the family is hoping for—a Christmas miracle.
Brain death, “is as reliable a way to determine death as declaring that a person’s heart has forever stopped beating,” Caplan wrote. “In fact, due to the strict tests and procedures that have to be followed to determine brain death, it is probably even more error-free than pronouncing someone dead due to cardiac failure.”
As logical as that reasoning sounds, it’s hard to convince the family who sees their beloved teen’s heart beating on a machine and can touch her hands warm with life.
But there needs to be a better education and support system in place during times like these. When a surgery goes horribly wrong, how can the family trust what they hear from physicians at the hospital where the surgery took place? Who is counseling this family beyond the hospital staff and the lawyer representing their desires? Have friends, a family doctor, or church leaders stepped in?
More importantly, such an education should be taking place before such tragedies occur. We all need to realize that the miracle of modern medicine can keep our organs alive for years, even decades, after our brains have died. But this isn’t much of a miracle at all because the brain can’t come back to life.
What do you think? How should the hospital be handling this?