Remember the story of Jahi McMath?

After routine surgery for sleep apnea the summer of 2014, Jahi McMath’s medical team overlooked a bleed that eventually led to cardiac arrest and a catastrophic brain injury. Her medical team declared her “brain dead” and the state of California issued a formal death certificate.

But something unexpected happened: Jahi reached puberty and got her first period.

Her family, already irate at the poor care she was given and quite aware of the history of Black families like theirs receiving substandard care (especially when in vulnerable situations), refused to accept the medical team’s view that she had died. In addition to reaching puberty, Jahi fought off infections, maintained homeostasis, responded with an elevated heart rate to trauma, and more.

But as her family fought for her life, the medical establishment entrusted with her care had quite a reaction.

David Durand, senior vice-president and chief medical officer of the hospital where Jahi was admitted, dismissed her family’s concerns. According to Jahi’s mother, stepfather, grandmother, brother, and their lawyer, Dr. Durand responded to their concerns by saying, “What is it that you don’t understand?”

He then pounded his fist on the table, saying, “She’s dead, dead, dead.”

That judgment would not stand the test of time.

In 2021, an article in the Journal of Neurological Sciences would declare that Jahi was not brain dead after all, but had something called “responsive unawake syndrome.”

The facts seemed to support that idea. In 2014, after Jahi had been issued a California death certificate, her family moved her to a New Jersey hospital, where a Catholic hospital had agreed to treat her. Jahi lived for four more years, and even convinced people who had once agreed that she was dead that she could respond to her mother’s command to touch her thumb and forefinger together…..

Those issues have been debated for decades among medical ethicists. And next week , they’ll hit an inflection point when an influential organization of lawyers — a group called the Uniform Law Commission — will use their annual Hawaii meeting to vote on whether to recommend that U.S. states change the legal definition of death….

Melissa Moschella, associate professor of philosophy at the Catholic University of America, told The Pillar that debate over brain death is a complex topic — and made more difficult by a broad use of the term “brain dead” in media and public conversation, even applied to people who are in a coma.

Alan Shewmon, retired chief of neurology at UCLA and a prominent voice in the brain death debate, told The Pillar that most clinicians “aren’t even aware that there is a raging discourse over ‘brain death.’”

“They simply accept what they were taught in medical school and residency: that ‘brain death’ is death, and that it’s diagnosed according to the published guidelines of the American Academy of Neurology for adults and the joint-society guidelines for children; you check off all the boxes and move on to the next patient without thinking further about it,” Shewmon added….

From The Pillar