The tragic case of Jahi McMath has reignited America's debate over brain death. For those of you who have managed to miss this ongoing story, on December 9 of last year, the 13-year-old girl from Oakland underwent what should have been routine surgery to treat sleep apnea. She was supposed to have her tonsils (and little extra tissue) removed before being sent home. It's a surgery that most of you have probably undergone with little to no issue. Sadly, due to some unnamed complications, the girl suffered cardiac arrest and went into a coma. Two days later, on December 11, doctors declared Jahi McMath brain dead.
As a result of the prognosis, McMath's family issued a cease and desist order that would prohibit the hospital housing McMath to take her off of life support. Jahi's life, the family asserted, should be left in the hands of God. That's all well and good, retorted the doctors, but the girl is pretty much dead, and will never recover. She may not even regain consciousness. Ever.
Letting their little girl go wasn't an option for the McMath's, however, so they called upon a charitable nation to donate the funds required to move their daughter to a facility that would treat her in spite of her brain death. At the last minute, an unnamed hospital took up Jahi McMath's cause, offering to transfer the teen to their facility.
The debate over this decision rages on.
First, let's take a second to discuss what "brain death" actually means. It's not a coma. Next to brain death, a coma is like a really deep sleep. Your mind still functions in a coma - in fact, a coma can even be medically beneficial under the right circumstances. Even those people who are referred to as vegetables, those people in a persistent vegetative state, are still showing some kinds of brain function. When a patient is determined to be "brain dead," the brain has ceased any and all functions.
Which brings us to the Uniform Determination of Death Act, a particularly morbid piece of legislature that states, "An individual who has sustained either (1) irreversible cessation of circulatory and respiratory functions, or (2) irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain, including the brain stem, is dead."
Since it was passed in 1981, this has been the legal definition that all hospitals and care facilities have been compelled to follow. Not simply because the government decided to draw an arbitrary line in the sand, but because a body cannot function without brain activity. Period. I'll spare you the details, but let me assure you that once the brain shuts off, the rest of the body isn't far behind, no matter how many machines are working against nature.
It should probably be noted, by the way, that, Jahi McMath was legally declared dead by the Alameda County Coroner on December 12th, one day after her doctors declared her legally brain dead.
And yet, the debate rages on.
At what point are we actually doing a disservice here, not to Jahi McMath, but to her family, who are forced to confront this terrible tragedy in the news every single day? I can certainly understand their desire to cling to their daughter, even after doctors declared her beyond help. And I can't even comprehend the sense of injustice they must feel at being forced to suffer this ordeal when Jahi was scheduled for a routine tonsillectomy (please tell me someone lost their job over that).
Perhaps I'm missing the point, perhaps this is a debate that needs having and not the understandable actions of parents who just weren't ready to say goodbye to their little girl. It seems cruel, though, to drag out the debate when most experts have claimed that - horrible twist of fate or not - Jahi McMath will not recover from her brain death.