Jahi McMath: Expert criticizes keeping girl on ventilator

Medical ethicists are criticizing the unnamed facility that agreed to keep the body of 13-year-old Jahi McMath on a ventilator after transferring her from an Oakland hospital, saying it will only delay the inevitable while potentially causing long-term financial and emotional harm to her family.

Jahi’s case has been widely criticized by medical experts who have emphasized that people who are declared brain-dead are no longer alive. At least three neurologists confirmed Jahi was unable to breathe on her own, had no blood flow to her brain and had no sign of electrical activity three days after she underwent surgery Dec. 9 to remove her tonsils, adenoids and uvula at Children’s Hospital Oakland and went into cardiac arrest, causing extensive hemorrhaging in her brain.

After waging a public relations battle with the hospital, Jahi’s family members won a court order keeping her on a ventilator, and eventually permission to transfer her to an undisclosed care facility. Medical ethicists are blaming the operators of that facility for perpetuating misconceptions of brain death that have dogged the Jahi case since her family went public.

PHOTOS: The Jahi McMath case


“What could they be thinking?” Laurence McCullough, a professor at the Center for Medical Ethics and Health Policy at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, told USA Today. “Their thinking must be disordered, from a medical point of view. ... There is a word for this: crazy.”

San Francisco attorney Christopher Dolan has also been widely criticized as having fed false hope to the McMath family that somehow their daughter -- who was issued a death certificate by the Alameda County coroner -- will recover.

Bodies of the brain-dead have been maintained on respirators for months or, in rare cases, years. However, once cessation of all brain activity is confirmed, there is no recovery, said Rebecca S. Dresser, professor of law and ethics in medicine at Washington University in St. Louis, to The Times.

For his part, Dolan has called accusations that he has misled the McMath family offensive, adding that they are “smart people” who are above getting “hoodwinked by some lawyer that’s manipulating them.”

But McCullough told USA Today that he worries about the emotional and financial damage that the parents will suffer, noting that “insurance doesn’t pay for dead people.”

The McMaths raised tens of thousands of dollars from the public during their campaign to keep Jahi on a ventilator -- money Dolan has said was used to transfer the girl’s body to the unnamed facility. But experts point out that the money will eventually run out, and no amount of artificial help will stop Jahi’s body from decomposing.

“The additional medical interventions Petitioner proposes are unprecedented. They simply will not bring her back to life nor enable others to do so,” according to a court declaration from Dr. Heidi Flori, a critical care physician at Children’s Hospital & Research Center Oakland, which had sought to remove the teen from the ventilator after she was declared brain-dead Dec. 12.

McCullough agreed.

“Are there some living cells in the body? Not all the cells die at once. It takes time. But her body will start to break down and decay. It’s a matter of when, not whether.”