Remember the Humanity of Jahi McMath

By Bobby Schindler and Mark P. Mostert

PHILADELPHIA, PA, January 7, 2014 --The tragic facts surrounding 13 year-old Jahi McMath are now well known. She underwent routine surgery at Children’s Hospital Oakland December 9 for removal of her tonsils and some other tissue to alleviate her sleep apnea. After surgery she was alert and sitting up in bed, chatting with her family. However, as her family watched, Jahi began bleeding profusely, the blood on her gown matching the pink popsicle she held in her hand. The bleeding went on for several hours before she went into cardiac arrest and was medically declared brain dead on December 12.

Ever since, Jahi’s family has been locked in a battle of attrition with Oakland Children’s: The hospital says she’s dead; her family says she’s severely brain-injured.

An undated photo provided by the McMath family and Omari Sealey shows Jahi McMath.

Oakland Children’s position is brutally cold: Because Jahi has been declared brain-dead, she is therefore completely dead, only staying warm via the life-giving oxygen being pumped into her system by a mechanical ventilator. The hospital leadership has taken every opportunity to make clear that they are following California’s legal definition of brain death to the letter. For the hospital, Jahi is a hollow mass of flesh devoid of meaning; the administration has refused to refer to her as a child of a loving family. Instead, they have said that she is a “dead body” and a “deceased person.” Hospital spokesman Sam Singer rubbed even more salt into the wound, noting that “no amount of hope, prayer, or medical procedures will bring her back.”

The hard-nosed corporate line is very simple: Jahi is a mere shell, bereft of humanity, and using up precious resources only because of the naïve and uninformed hopes of her loving but pesky family.

Unsurprisingly, Jahi’s family sees things differently. They watched a vibrant young teenager morph into a starkly silent child, her hopes and potential dashed by a relatively simple medical procedure. They have also made clear that despite her current condition, Jahi is still their beloved child, not some washed-up husk ready for disposal. They have also been clear that Jahi is perhaps not as “dead” as Oakland Children’s Hospital would have us all believe. Jahi’s mother and several family members report that Jahi has responded to familiar voices. They have made the case that at the very least Jahi’s medical condition should be given some time before a radical hospital decision deprives her of her life for good.

For the hospital, Jahi’s medical diagnosis is certain and final, a diagnosis they want to leverage to close the book on a public relations crisis that has already badly diminished the reputation of the facility.

It’s not that simple, however, because no medical diagnosis is absolute. The research literature is rife with clinically observed instances of patients outstripping their physicians’ dire predictions by months, years, and even decades.

And that includes diagnoses of brain death.

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Schindler is Executive Director of the Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Network. Mostert is a member of its Board of Directors.

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