The news of the dilemma surrounding the life and death of Jahi McMath has been permeating the media over the past couple of weeks. The 13 year-old teen was admitted to have a tonsillectomy, however, due to complications during this normally routine procedure, her cerebral cortex stopped functioning and left her brain without oxygen.
She was ultimately declared “brain dead” by the doctors at Children’s Hospital and Research Center in Oakland, California, which wants to remove her from the ventilator, because in their eyes and based upon their standard practices and ethical considerations, she is “dead.”
Jahi’s mother, Nailah Winkfield, filed for and received a court injunction, prohibiting the hospital from removing Jahi from the ventilator until 5:00 pm on Tuesday, January 7, 2014. In an effort to circumvent this removal, and to move Jahi to another facility in New York, which has agreed to continue to work on and care for her, Winkfield agreed to the hospital’s terms in order to have Jahi released. The terms Winkfield agreed to were:
1) A death certificate be issued for Jahi
2) Certain releases and liability waivers surrounding the release were executed to protect the hospital
3) The hospital refused to fit Jahi with a feeding tube or breathing tube to stabilize her during the move to the facility in New York in an effort to avoid liability and breach of ethical standards.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?
This entire situation, as sad and unfortunate as it is for all of Jahi’s friends and family, is steeped upon the legal definition of “death,”ethics in the practice of medical procedures and also religion and faith. From a legal standpoint, The 1980 Uniform Determination of Death Act has defined death as “the irreversible cessation of all functioning of the brain, including the brain stem.” This definition, and its literal meaning, has been debated for years due to technological advances in the medical field that allows ventilators (i.e. – “life support”) to keep a person “alive” despite no brain or brain stem function. New York and New Jersey are two states exempt from this definition if for religious purposes.
The medical field, like other industries, operates on specific ethical and legal standards to avoid liability. One such ethical standard argued by the hospital is the refusal to provide medical services to someone who is “dead.”
The only way around the impending ventilator removal by the hospital and ultimate “death” of Jahi was for the hospital to release her body to the Alameda County Coroner, have them issue a death certificate (which won’t be final until an autopsy is done to note the actual cause of death), find an independent physician to insert another ventilator and feeding tube and subsequently get her the care they so desperately desired in this facility in New York.
It is evident that Jahi’s family is operating on their religion, faith and love for her, and will continue to fight until there are absolutely no other options.
HOW DOES THIS AFFECT YOU?
Jahi is a child, therefore, her mother has final say on what ultimately happens in this matter. As most hospitals have adopted standards and adhere to legal statutes defining death based upon brain function, there is a lot of red tape and bureaucracy her family has to deal with in order to keep her alive. One of the major differences in Jahi’s instance and other notorious cases surrounding life-support, such as Terri Schiavo, is brain function.
As an adult, you can make a determination now surrounding what you would like to happen before something unfortunate like this takes place. A Health Care Proxy (information surrounding a New York HCP may be found here), appropriately drafted and executed according to your state’s standards, can assist loved ones in defining and understanding who can make ultimate decisions regarding your health care and also may include language regarding you not desiring resuscitation, and also whether or not you want to continue on life support.
As the lines between state and religion/faith can be blurred regarding the definition of “death,” it is important to understand your rights beforehand and to also come to peace and understanding if, unfortunately, the decision regarding the life or death of a loved one is made for you.
Rashida Maples, Esq. is Founder and Managing Partner of J. Maples & Associates (www.jmaplesandassociates.com). She has practiced Entertainment, Real Estate and Small Business Law for 9 years, handling both transactional and litigation matters. Her clients include R&B Artists Bilal and Olivia, NFL Superstar Ray Lewis, Fashion Powerhouse Harlem’s Fashion Row and Hirschfeld Properties, LLC.
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