Jahi McMath could be removed from life support despite family’s wishes

The body of Jahi McMath, a 13-year-old girl who suffered brain death following complications from a tonsillectomy earlier this month, could be removed from a ventilator as early as Monday evening.

Although doctors at Children’s Hospital of Oakland declared McMath legally dead and a court-appointed pediatric neurologist agreed that she had no chance of recovering, her family believes that she could revive and has sought to force the hospital to keep her on life support.

A judge ruled last week that the hospital was not obliged to continue caring for the girl after 5 p.m. Monday, giving her family time to file an appeal or make other arrangements for her care.

Yet for physicians at Children’s Hospital and elsewhere, treating a corpse is unethical, and the family has apparently failed to find another facility willing to keep McMath’s body connected to a ventilator.

According to the hospital, no arrangements for a transfer have been made. “This is not transferring an individual in a vegetative state, but a dead body,” hospital spokeswoman Cynthia Chiarappana told the Associated Press, noting the legal and medical difficulties involved in moving McMath.

McMath’s family spent Christmas with that “dead body” at the hospital, with a tree and gifts in the room. “We still got five days for a miracle. We are still hopeful,” Omari Sealey, McMath’s uncle, told the Associated Press on Christmas.

The editorial board of the San Jose Mercury News argued that keeping McMath on the ventilator would be wrong:

People do come out of comas and even, more rarely, out of a persistent vegetative state. Sometimes it happens long after most loved ones have lost hope, and it can seem like a miracle.

But there is no recovery from brain death. Ever. . . .

Machines can keep lungs and hearts pumping, which gives loved ones the illusion of life. But it is an illusion.

The cost to society, hospitals and caregivers to maintain a fiction of hope is simply too high.

Keeping a patient on life support in an intensive care unit bed costs, at a minimum, $2,000-$4,000 per day and can run much higher depending on the patient’s condition, into hundreds of thousands a year. Nurses and doctors must maintain care around the clock, warding off bed sores and other conditions that come from being confined to a hospital bed for days, months or even years.

It may seem cold to say it, but doing this for a patient who is legally dead takes up the time of medical professionals and sophisticated equipment that otherwise could be available to ICU patients who have real hope of recovering from devastating injuries or diseases.

San Jose Mercury News

McMath’s death has also drawn attention to the increase in the number of tonsillectomies performed in the United States recently, especially on children with sleep apnea. Some doctors believe the evidence that removing a person’s tonsils helps to relieve sleep apnea is scant.

While fatal complications are rare, the procedure is common enough that several deaths every year are inevitable, David Tunkel of Johns Hopkins told the Contra Costa Times.

Max Ehrenfreund is a blogger on the Financial desk and writes for Know More and Wonkblog.
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