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Expert Witness Gives His Take on the Jahi McMath Controversy

January 3, 2014

Jahi McMath, a 13-year-old girl, suffered cardiac arrest, heavy bleeding and loss of blood to the brain following a tonsillectomy surgery.  Her doctors have pronounced her brain dead and in California when a person is brain dead, they are considered dead. Court documents show that two hospital physicians and three other doctors, requested by the family, also believe that she is brain dead.

“An independent physician named by Alameda County Superior Court Judge Evelio Grillo last week corroborated the determination that Jahi is legally dead, saying that testing showed no blood flow to the brain, no ability to breathe without the ventilator and no sign of electrical activity in her brain.”

Jahi’s mother, Nailah Winkfield, has continued to fight for her daughter, insisting she is still alive.

When I go in there and touch her, she moves her whole body, her legs, her shoulders. How can you possibly say my child is dead is she responds to my voice?

Jahi is on a ventilator now, however, since she has been pronounced dead, the hospital’s next step is to stop ventilation. Jahi’s family fought for time and a judge’s order granted an extension to keep Jahi’s ventilator on until January 7th at 5 pm. Today, a federal magistrate is scheduled to mediate talks between the Oakland hospital and Jahi McMath’s family. “Children’s Hospital Oakland argues that Jahi is legally dead and opposes performing medical procedures on a ‘deceased person’. Jahi’s family insists that she is still alive, and wants her transferred to a long-term care facility despite a consensus among neurologists that she is dead.”

New Beginnings Center in Medford, New York agreed to take Jahi and Medway Air Ambulance quoted nearly $28,000 to transport Jahi and a physician. Nonetheless, the family still has not found a physician “willing to perform the procedures necessary for the breathing and feeding tubes.”

Robert M. Veatch, a professor of medical ethics, ethics consultant, and expert witness has written an opinion piece on the matter. The following are excerpts of what can be found in his CNN opinion.

A significant minority in the medical profession continue to believe people with dead brains and beating hearts are still alive. Believers include some of our wisest minds — a Harvard professor, an National Institute of Health theorist, a chief of neurology at UCLA, and the former chair of the U.S. President’s Council all reject brain-based death pronouncement. They agree with Jahi’s parents that death is linked to circulatory loss.

“Others take a position more liberal than the standard law that defines brain death. They favor pronouncing death in some cases even when some parts of the lower brain are still functioning. I have defended that view since 1973.”

“Why, then, does American law continue to force one standard of death on Jahi’s parents and others who have plausible alternative definitions? Once one realizes that the choice among the options is not a cut-and-dried matter of medical science, why not let people have some choice based on their personal religious and cultural views?”

“The trouble arises when physicians want to stop life-support, perhaps because they believe the case is hopeless, and the patient or family insist that life support continue. We call this the “futile care problem.” I defended in court the mother of a severely brain-damaged baby referred to as Baby K who wanted life support to continue even though her doctors wanted to stop. Society should show sympathy for mothers who want their children to be kept alive.”

“If preserving life requires high-tech support like a ventilator, doctors are the ones who should provide it. The costs shouldn’t be borne by the hospital. The health insurance company or Medicaid shouldn’t pay. But if the family can raise the funds, like Jahi’s parents are doing, and the patient is beyond feeling pain, no harm is done by continuing, especially if they can find a facility willing to take the case.”

“Whether this right to medical support should extend to those considered dead by one standard, but alive by another is the question we face with Jahi McMath. If the patient does not suffer, and private funding is available, people should have the right to make this decision for their loved ones.”

Sources: LA Times and CNN Opinion

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