Letting go of Jahi

The look on Nailah Winkfield’s face says so much. And what it seemed to say most, as she raised a hand to her forehead while in court with her husband, was “Won’t somebody please, please come and wake me up from this nightmare?”

Most people, certainly most parents, wish they could do just that, as they watch this stricken mother face what few can even bear to contemplate. Winkfield is understandably in shock after her 13-year-old daughter suddenly died after what had looked like successful surgery. But broad medical consensus on whole brain death is that there is no alternate reality for Jahi McMath, no scenario under which her condition could be reversed to even something as dismal as a persistent vegetative state.

How this happened and who, if anyone, is to blame will be raked over in detail. But whether this was malpractice, or a rare but unavoidable reaction, it doesn’t change the outcome for Jahi. This is something that her stricken mother and her caring but under-informed supporters must accept. Transporting her somewhere else, inserting a feeding tube — at this point these would be well-intentioned medical exercises on a cadaver. The judge in the case, who has ordered Jahi kept on life support for another week, is not doing the girl or her family any favors.

The mother’s objections to having her daughter declared dead started out as defensible but now they simply signal that she cannot come to terms with horrifying reality. At first, she wanted an outside opinion to confirm her daughter’s death. Of course she wasn’t going to trust Children’s Hospital Oakland's word after this terrible event. But she got that outside opinion. Her daughter has been declared legally dead by the judge — not in a coma, not in a vegetative state.

It doesn’t look that way to Winkfield, of course, because Jahi’s body doesn’t appear dead, thanks to the machinery that breathes for her.  “I can touch her, she is warm,” Winkfield wrote in a publicly released statement. She voices belief that her daughter will be re-awakened to life.  I wish that were possible.

This might sound cold, but even if a facility is found that will accept Jahi’s body and keep it on breathing apparatus and a feeding tube indefinitely, that’s not the way society should be treating dead people.

If there is a positive side to such a saddening story, perhaps it’s in the education that the public is getting about a form of death that is hard for us to picture. Or perhaps it’s in the outpouring of sympathy from so many people who never met Jahi. But at this point, there is nothing positive to be gained by plans for some sort of “treatment” for a poor, dead young girl. There is no such thing as “keeping Jahi alive,” because she is gone. What her horrified and grieving mother is fighting so hard to keep alive is the illusion of life.


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