It’s been more than three years since 13-year-old Jahi McMath was declared dead after something went terribly wrong following throat surgery at Children’s Hospital Oakland. Her family has never accepted the declaration and has kept her on life support ever since — and in a new twist, a prominent neurologist says recent videos of the girl show she is alive, with a partially functioning brain.
Jahi is connected to a ventilator in New Jersey, where her family moved her in 2014 after gaining custody of what Children’s Hospital officials and the Alameda County coroner insisted — and a judge agreed — was her corpse. The family, arguing that doctors’ diagnosis of brain death did not mean the girl was dead, sought unsuccessfully to force the hospital to continue caring for her, something officials there argued would be “grotesque.”
Now, Jahi is in an apartment in an undisclosed city while her mother and other relatives wage a legal fight to have her death certificate overturned — a preliminary step in what they intend to be a wrongful-injury lawsuit, rather than a wrongful-death case, against the Oakland hospital.
The latest development in the case stems from 49 videos recorded by Jahi’s family from March 2014 through April 2016. In the videos, according to court documents, Jahi is shown seemingly responding to simple commands, such as moving her right hand or kicking one manicured foot.
In a sworn declaration filed June 29 in Alameda County Superior Court, Dr. Alan Shewmon, a professor emeritus of pediatrics and neurology at UCLA and a well-known critic of the guidelines defining brain death, says the videos demonstrate not only that Jahi is alive but also that her condition is improving.
She is irrevocably and severely neurologically disabled, Shewmon says — the result of what happened after her throat surgery in December 2013 at what is now UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland, when she went into cardiac arrest suffering massive bleeding and hemorrhaging. But he says she is no longer brain dead.
“Jahi’s subsequent course defied all predictions of what must happen to dead bodies maintained indefinitely on ventilators,” Shewmon said in his declaration. “Jahi McMath is a living, severely disabled young lady, who currently fulfills neither the standard diagnostic guidelines for brain death nor California’s statutory definition of death.”
Nailah Winkfield, Jahi’s mother, sued the hospital and state and Alameda County officials in December 2015, alleging medical malpractice. Her suit says the county coroner wrongly declared Jahi dead. If the courts reverse the death certificate, Winkfield could arrange to have Jahi receive medical care in California — something that can’t happen if she is legally dead.
Ultimately, if Jahi is reclassified as alive, the family could be entitled to millions of dollars in damages. Awards are capped in California at $250,000 for the wrongful death of a child, but there is no cap for wrongful-injury claims because a court can order medical costs to be paid indefinitely.
Jahi has a feeding tube and needs blankets to maintain her temperature, Shewmon said in his court declaration. But she has begun puberty and has menstruated, Shewmon said, based on his observations.
The family videos show several instances in which Jahi appears to respond to commands to move body parts such as her thumb and right hand, Shewmon said. In one clip, he said, Winkfield asks Jahi, “Which finger is the bad finger? Which finger would I move if I get mad at somebody? Which finger is the f-you finger?”
Seconds later, Jahi appears to slowly flex her middle finger, Shewmon said.
“At the time the videos were made, Jahi was in a responsive state, capable of understanding a verbal command and barely capable of executing a simple motor response,” Shewmon said.
Full story at SF Chronicle.