Jahi McMath was just a normal girl from Oakland, California, who just so happened to have a severe case of Sleep Apnea. Her family decided to have her undergo a routine surgery to remove throat and nasal tissue to help decrease the effect of her symptoms. When she awoke from the surgery, everything seemed fine at first. She was smiling, laughing, and talking. It seemed that everything was going to go as planned, and everybody would be able to return to their normal lives soon. Unfortunately, however, something went very, very wrong during the surgery. She began to bleed profusely from her nose and mouth, and then suffered a cardiac arrest. She was placed on a ventilator, and doctors tried everything they could to save her. But whatever had gone wrong during the surgery was inevitably fatal. 2 days later, she was declared Brain Dead. In this situation, brain death is a complete and total loss of activity in the brain, and it cannot be undone. She is not in a vegetative state, as this loss of activity includes her brain stem. She is completely and utterly dead. All from a common, simple, routine surgery to treat sleep apnea.
The family refuses to believe they lost their daughter. Jahi’s Grandmother claims she responds to touch. The hospital claims that there is no electrical activity in her brain, however, which would make this impossible. The family wants to keep her on a machine to keep her heart beating, as they believe that cardiac death is the only true death. The hospital knows that she will never wake. This isn’t an issue of a coma that doesn’t look good. This is complete death. Without blood flow to her brain, her brain will slowly liquify. The hospital wants to take her off of the ventilator, to make room for more patients. The parents, however, in an attempt to keep the child on, attempt to make the doctor involved in the situation look like a bad person by releasing a statement saying:
"We have our strong religious convictions and set of beliefs and we believe that, in this country, a parent has the right to make decisions concerning the existence of their child: not a doctor who looks only at lines on a paper, or reads the cold black and white words on a law that says 'brain dead' and definitely not a doctor who runs the facility that caused the brain death in the first place."
The hospital attempts damage control in several statements trying to convince the public that they have been helpful and caring to the family in this situation, including this one:
"We continue to [help] despite their lawyer's criticizing the very hospital that all along has been working hard to be accommodating to this grieving family.”
The public isn't able to make the decision however, and after a few days, the case is taken to civil court on December 20, 2013. Alameda County Superior Court Judge Evelio Grillo ruled that the hospital must keep Jahi on a ventilator until a court-approved doctor can assess whether the teen has any chance of recovering, and eventually makes that date December 30th. According to the doctor appointed (Paul Fisher), Jahi meets all criteria for brain death, and Judge Grillo denies a petition to keep her on a ventilator past December 30th. The Alameda County Coroner issues a death certificate listing December 12th as the date of death for Jahi McMath.
On the 26th, the family announced they found a facility to “care” for Jahi MacMath’s body. The hospital agrees to release her, but will not waste money on inserting breathing and feeding tubes, which are required for her body to be transferred. Eventually a team hired by Jahi McMath’s family moves her body to the new facility. It arrives at the new facility in “poor condition”. One statement says her body “is in such poor condition that she might not survive.”
This heartbreaking story, along with others, raise arguments about the controversy surrounding the brain death. Brain death is not anywhere near as common as cardiac death (the heart stopping). So the accepted fact among the general public is that death is declared when the heart stops beating. The fact that cardiac death is just referred to as “death” and brain death is separated by having a different name doesn’t exactly help the situation either. It gives those uneducated about brain death a false sense of security and hope. Most of the time, families come to grips with the situation in days if not hours. Every once in a while, however, a firestorm like this arises out of the situation.
It’s not always a case of families in denial, though. There are cases where the hospitals and courts are the ones causing the issue. A brain-dead Texas woman is currently being kept on life support against her and her family’s wishes, because she’s 14 weeks pregnant. Texas law prevents life-saving treatment from being withheld from pregnant women until the fetus is viable and able to be delivered. The mother is already dead in the family’s eyes, however, as brain death was declared legal death in 2008 by a Presidential Bioethics Council.
These recent court battles raise questions about what brain death exactly is, and in what situations it should be treated as a deep coma (i.e. when a woman is pregnant, even without a functioning brain, her heart being kept beating by a respirator can keep the baby continuing to grow), and when it should be treated as absolute death ( i.e. when a patient is just taking up space.).
It doesn't look like the president is going to be appointing a committee to make a decision anytime soon, though. As journalists publish articles encouraging people to question the meaning of brain death, and whether it should be considered legal death, the scientific and medical community continue to reassure people that these are situations created out of a misunderstanding of the concept. In Jahi McMath’s story, it’s a misunderstanding by the family. In the case of Marlise Munoz (the Texas woman), it’s a misunderstanding by the hospital of the law. Nonetheless, these court battles will continue to raise questions and generate controversy.
Going back to Jahi McMath’s case, it isn't very clear what the outcome of this situation is going to be. The Media and Court firestorm has subsided, and it doesn't look like either one of them is going to start back up again. Whatever undisclosed facility her body has been moved to doesn't seem like one that’s eventually going to decide they want out. And even if they do, it seems that they've gained enough trust with the family to convince them to terminate treatment if it comes to that. It doesn't look like the case is going back to court, and without fighting in court, there’s no way for news outlets to milk anymore out of the story.
There’s questions surrounding the legality of what the family is doing - keeping a legally dead person instead of burying her - but nobody is going to touch that with a 20 foot pole anytime soon. And that makes this case just that much more interesting. This case - along with others - are going to have a huge affect on how the public views brain death. The biggest question is: Is this going to cause people to go with logic in the future, or go with their gut feeling and seemingly right-at-first morals? The next time somebody ends up suddenly brain dead, and have a family like McMath’s, will they keep the patient on a machine or let her go? Will Jahi McMath’s case have any affect on them?