It’s a scenario no family should ever have to face — complications from what should have been a routine surgery instead leaves a 13-year-old girl brain dead and on life support, never again to be a part of their lives. However, when forced to do the unthinkable and decide when or if life support should be ended, that choice can be even more fraught with issues. After all, when is it in the best interests for a family to say good bye on their own timeline, and is it ever better for medical professionals to make that decision for them?
That’s the issue occurring in California, where the family of 13-year-old Jahi McMath has obtained an injunction forbidding Children’s Hospital & Research Center in Oakland from removing the girl from life support, despite the fact that she has been declared legally brain dead and doctors say there is no hope of any sort of recovery.
McMath was in the hospital for a tonsillectomy, which was hoped would assist her with a number of other health issues she had been struggling with ranging from sleep apnea to weight gain. During her recovery in the hospital, however, she allegedly went into cardiac arrest, and a follow up CT scan showed her brain was swollen. On Monday she was declared brain dead according to state law, which requires two doctors to examine the patient and make the determination, with the examinations done at least three hours apart. The hospital allegedly told the family that they would need to remove McMath from life support, but the family filed papers with the courts to stop that from occurring.
“I just feel my daughter is trapped inside of her body, just screaming to get out of there,” Latasha “Nailah” Winkfield said Tuesday, according to NBC News. “I won’t let them take her to the coroner’s office. I won’t.” The family also stated that they were certain that something went wrong with the medical procedure and are seeking answers from the hospital.
There lies the problem. Keeping the young girl on life support provides the family with the time that they need to say goodbye to a beloved child. It will not change her prognosis — unlike a persistent vegetative state, where a patient could conceivably have some small hope for recovery, a declaration that a patient is brain dead means there is no chance for brain activity to resume. However, it does allow for a family to heal and accept their loss on their own terms.
On the other hand, it makes determining the exact cause of death that much more difficult, and could force the family to lose closure when it comes to learning what, if anything, could have prevented this tragedy from happening. “When the body is on a ventilator, the body is healing,” an official at the coroner’s office told CNN. “If a medical misadventure occurred, and the body is healing and covering up traces of that misadventure, the coroner pathologist has a more difficult time rendering a cause of death.”
It’s a vicious trade off. Any delay could mean that discovering what went wrong during the procedure or the follow up care may never be solved. Yet forcing a family to face their loss before they are ready could be just as damaging.
Although science says it is an impossibility, the family expects a miracle. “Our faith is so strong that we don’t even think about the possibility of death,” McMath’s uncle, Omari Sealey, said. “We believe with all the prayers from everyone around the world and the prayers with our family that she will wake up, that she will heal completely.”
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