Healthy Living

Brain-Dead California Girl Might be Declared “Undead” 3 Years from “Passing”

Brain-Dead California Girl Might be Declared “Undead” 3 Years from “Passing”

Jahi McMath and her mother, Nailah. Source: Facebook. Keep Jahi McMath on life support. https://www.facebook.com/keepJahiMcmathonlifesupport/

Key Takeaways

  • Jahi McMath went in for a tonsillectomy to treat her sleep apnea condition, and ended up with severe brain damage.
  • Jahi McMath's family is fighting to keep her on life support.
  • The family is requesting for a death certificate reversal. 

In December 2013, Jahi McMath, a 13-year-old girl from Northern California had a routine tonsillectomy in order to treat her sleep apnea. The surgery went awry and ended up causing her massive bleeding and an attack of arrhythmia, resulting in a cardiac arrest. The diagnosis read that Jahi had severe brain damage and she wouldn’t be able to survive if not connected to a respirator.

After being declared brain-dead, Jahi’s parents decided to take her to a facility located in New Jersey in view of more permissive laws that would allow her to be kept connected to a ventilator. Some of the court records show that New Jersey Medicaid has covered part of the medical expenses. Even though the McMath’s have confirmed this, they could not disclose the exact amount. The case became very popular and attracted the attention of the media when three doctors tried to discuss the possibility of removing her life support.

In 2014, Jahi’s parents won the right to keep their daughter connected to a breathing machine, and to date they still stand by their point of trying all kinds of resources and treatments that can lead to a recovery.

Is a brain-dead individual supposed to move?

More than 3 years after the incident, Jahi’s parents are now asking for the death certificate to be revoked. The main reason for this request is that video footage collected from 2014 to 2016 has given some proof that the teenager may be alive. Among the most important life signals displayed on these video clips, there is one that specifically shows that the teenager is twitching her fingers. Many doctors have stated that brain-dead patients are still able to make slight movements, especially with their fingers and eyelids.

Despite said declarations, Jahi McMath’s mother, who had previously acknowledged the condition of her daughter as severe, is still fighting for the rights of her daughter to be on life support. Dr. Shewmon, a retired neurologist, expert in the matter of brain deaths and a long-time critic of the definition and handling of these cases, has shown his support to Jahi’s parents by filing similar court papers backing up the death certificate revocation request.

Legal debate and dispute

The family decided to formally argue in court the death certificate and asked for a reversal on July 13th led by their attorney named Chris Dolan. The papers filed in court during 2014 clearly stated the teenager as no longer alive.

Chris Dolan emphasizes the latest brain scans done on Jahi show electrical activity and some kind of responses to verbal impulses when her mother talks to her.

On the other side, lawyers for the California hospital where Jahi was entered originally have said Chris Dolan has rejected their request to turn over to them the latest videos, which are the same ones doctor Shewmon saw before deciding to support McMaths’ argument. Jennifer Still, who is part of the team of lawyers for the hospital, presented a court paper that read body movements could have been manipulated for the purposes of the videos. Still also wrote that Jahi was usually covered up with blankets, which, limits a more complete appreciation of the moment.

According to Still, it’s impossible to determine whether the movements displayed on the public videos are true or false since the blankets cover much of the scene. She also wrote that the camera chooses the most convenient angle, pointing and closing up the body part that is supposedly moving.

Right now, McMath’s lawyers (Bruce Brusavich and Andrew Change) have not returned any of the messages or telephone calls seeking commentaries regarding the matter. While complexity in the legal dispute increases, the decision from the judge is expected to be known in a period of two months tops. Meanwhile, the McMath family has decided to go on and explore new methods to try to boost their daughter’s recovery. The method they’re trying right now consists of using a feeding tube to feed Jahi with nutrients that may possibly keep the brain at optimum efficiency, in theory. Legal detractors of the case say that there’s no way of bringing Jahi back.

The question comes back

This case brings back to the table the question of “Should parents be able to decide upon children’s health in critical situations?”Jahi’s case is not the first one related to the debate of parents being able to choose their children’s’ medical treatment in these kind of dramatic conditions.

A great example of this situation just reached his end this 28th of July. Charlie Gard, the 11-months-old English baby who suffered from a very peculiar condition called DNA mitochondrial depletion that only 17 kids in the world suffer from, was disconnected from the ventilator that kept him alive. The situation led to a legal dispute between Charlie’s parents and the British justice. The case became a popular public matter since the baby was first connected to the breathing machine in October. The baby, who would’ve turn 1 year old in only one week, wasn’t able to hear, move, breath or swallow by himself. The episode reached its inevitable end when the judge ordered the baby’s translation to a hospital for people with terminal diseases where he would die after being disconnected from the ventilator. Charlie’s parents decided to take him back home so he could die with dignity, and he was buried alongside his favorite stuffed monkeys.  

Possible outcomes for Jahi’s case

Based on the legal part, people would say McMath’s request for a death certificate reversal will be rejected since her parents haven’t wanted to submit her to the scientifically proven tests that will clarify her current status. Given that body movement in brain-dead people is quite usual and do not represent a novelty, it’s not considered a strong point to back up the argument.

Even though the definition of brain death is inconsistent, it’s considered brain death when people are no longer able to do basic activities needed for survival (such as eating, swallowing, breathing, etc.) by themselves. Though, the definition does not clarify if it’s considered brain death when only a part or some parts of the brain are damaged, as it happens in most cases. It’s important to point out brain-dead people aren’t able to feel pain.

The movements or reflexes brain-dead people make are called “Lazarus reflexes” and they’re not considered a sign of live cells working, contrary to the belief of most people. The cells that cause these movements aren’t living cells from the brain itself but cells located in the spinal cord.

For now, there are no treatments for brain death or a way to reverse the damage the brain received. Regarding the exams that should be taken into account when looking forward to determine if someone is brain-dead or not are the radionuclide cerebral blood flow scan (which shows if there’s some kind of intracranial blood flow) along with other exams. These are the kind of exams McMath family does not want to submit Jahi for.

Nevertheless, U.S laws are more permissive regarding this matter than U.K laws or some other countries’ laws. It’s a matter of time to know what the judge decides, even though it’s impossible to know if a denial on the request for a death certificate reversal would lead to a disconnection order on behalf of the judge or not.