The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why a family fights over their ‘healthy and beautiful’ daughter, legally dead since 2013

Nestled among pillows with her long, black hair draped over a colorful blanket, 15-year-old Jahi McMath appeared to be peacefully asleep. The caption accompanying her photo supported this notion, describing “Jahi as healthy and beautiful as ever, proving the naysayers wrong.”

There was no mention on the Facebook post, which has been shared more than 2,500 times since last week, of Jahi’s death certificate, a document signed by a California coroner in 2013, declaring her deceased after a routine tonsil-removal surgery produced fatal complications.

In legal terms, Jahi is no longer alive, because she is brain-dead. Her neurological processes have ceased, and unlike comatose patients in vegetative states, there is no hope for recovery from brain death.

The brain-dead will never open their eyes, nor speak, nor walk again.

Yet with modern technology, it is possible for their organs to continue functioning and for parts of their body (like hair, for instance) to keep growing. On life support, they maintain a heartbeat.

Even though the law says Jahi is dead, many religions define life as breathing lungs and a beating heart, which Jahi has when she is connected to a respirator and a feeding tube.

With this in mind, her family has fought to have her death certificate overturned. After Children’s Hospital Oakland refused to keep Jahi on life support, the family moved to New Jersey, where a state law allows for exemptions on religious grounds from neurological-death declarations. All the while, they have harbored hope that their daughter — brain-dead for two years, “alive” for 15 — will one day miraculously awaken.

Her parents “are Christians with firm religious beliefs that as long as the heart is beating, Jahi is alive,” read the original lawsuit against the hospital over treating their daughter. “These religious beliefs involve providing all treatment, care and nutrition to a body that is living, treating it with respect and seeking to encourage its healing.”

The family and Children’s Hospital Oakland ultimately reached a settlement in which Jahi was released to her mother, Latasha Nailah Winkfield, with her ventilator and intravenous fluid lines intact.

Oakland hospital, coroner return Jahi McMath to family

Jahi’s family filed a medical-malpractice lawsuit against the hospital and her surgeon, Frederick Rosen, last March. The complaint alleges that Rosen failed to note an “anatomical anomaly” in Jahi that put her at serious risk of the excessive bleeding that led to her brain death.

This suit’s success also hinges on whether Jahi is considered alive or dead by the Alameda County Superior Court. California’s malpractice law has a $250,000 cap on monetary compensation in cases where a patient died from surgery and does not require funds for continued care.

But if Jahi is regarded as alive, and thus needing financial assistance to stay on life support, the award could be much greater if her family prevails.

Jahi’s condition has attracted fervent supporters and detractors, with her family’s persistence at the center of raging debates about what it means to be living.

The discussion was reignited after the Facebook post in a group called “Keep Jahi Mcmath on life support” went viral. It shows Winkfield sitting at her daughter’s bedside.

“Jahi Will Rise,” wrote user Eno Inyang, who posted the photo. “A recent picture of beautiful Jahi, doing very well, hair, skin and all very healthy, growing into a beautiful young lady in front of her mother’s eyes.”

The post has since been taken down. On Monday, the page administrator wrote the following: “If you are here to spew your negative thoughts please kindly delete your comments and remove yourself.”

Although some supported the family’s assertion that Jahi is still alive, others gently (and not so gently) implored them to let go.

“Looking beautiful as ever baby girl hang in there you have a huge comeback awaiting,” one commenter wrote. “God has blessed you and he will continue to bless you and nurse you all way back to health amen.”

Another person countered: “I’m sorry it’s modern medicine and modern technology. If God is so powerful and keeping her alive take her off the man made machines and let’s [see] what your God does. I fully understand your fate but it’s time to face reality.”

Many commenters shared stories of loved ones or acquaintances who had been on life support and deemed irrecoverable by doctors, only to be regain some or all of their neurological functioning. This is possible for patients in comas, but not for the brain-dead, unless the diagnosis was incorrect to begin with.

When are you dead? It may depend on which hospital makes the call.

The determination of Jahi’s family has waned little.

“She’s still asleep,” Winkfield told NBC Bay Area in 2014. “I don’t use the word ‘brain-dead’ for my daughter. I’m just waiting and faithful that she will have a recovery. She is blossoming into a teenager before my eyes.”

She reiterated this sentiment at a news conference in December, appearing before reporters via Skype with a “Jahi’s Life Matters” button pinned to her chest.

“Jahi is healthy from the neck-down,” Winkfield said, the San Jose Mercury News reported. “She just has a brain injury, and I understand those things do take time to heal.”

Sandra Chatman, Jahi’s grandmother, told the Mercury News that Jahi responds to requests to “give a thumbs-up” and reacts to music by wiggling her fingers. The family has not released any videos demonstrating these responses, though spontaneous movements have commonly been observed in brain-dead patients.

These small stirrings occur without any brain activity, but they continue to bolster the family’s hopes amid heavy criticism.

“I will not give up on Jahi, period,” her father, Milton McMath, told the Mercury News. “I will pull a trigger on myself before I pull the plug on her.”

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