Nearly a year ago, 13-year-old Jahi McMath and her family were making headlines. In for a routine surgery to remove her tonsils and adenoids, something went terribly wrong. After the procedure and still in ICU, Jahi bled excessively to the point of cardiac arrest.
Three days later, Children’s Hospital in Oakland, California, declared Jahi brain-dead and informed her family that they would take her off the respirator that sustained her life. When the family objected and the standoff became public, the hospital initiated an aggressive effort to end Jahi’s life. Sam Singer was the hospital’s hired public relations “hit man” who spoke to the media.
Singer’s verbal spins went into overdrive. Jahi wasn’t referred to by name but instead was called “the deceased,” “a corpse” or “the brain-dead child from California.” Singer opined in an appropriately somber tone, “No amount of prayer, no amount of hope, no amount of any type of medical procedure will bring her back.”
To many, the hospital’s actions appeared to be a cover-up for what seemed to be a botched routine procedure. For 28 days Jahi was given no nourishment and received a minimal amount of fluids. But the hospital seriously underestimated the protective instincts of Jahi’s mother, Nailah Winkfield. She engaged attorney Christopher Dolan. Working pro bono, Dolan obtained a court order to transport Jahi to another healthcare facility in the eastern part of the country. But the only way Nailah could get her daughter out of the hospital was if a death certificate were issued first. With ruthless bravado, the hospital forced Nailah to fill out the certificate herself.
Recently I visited Jahi, Nailah, and Nailah’s husband, Marvin. I was accompanied by Mary Schindler, the mother of Terri Schiavo, Terri’s brother, Bobby, and Brother Paul O’Donnell, chairman of the board of the Terri Schiavo Life and Hope Network.
What I saw when we walked into Jahi’s room was far from a year-old corpse. The sleeping child appeared to be the picture of health. We also witnessed Jahi moving naturally in an apparent effort to get more comfortable in her bed.
Nailah zealously guards her child’s privacy to prevent an onslaught of media attention or further efforts by the Oakland hospital to inflict further harm on Jahi. However, she filled me in on some of the events that transpired in the wake of her daughter’s medical crisis.
Very soon after the hospital deemed Jahi “brain-dead,” a social worker from the facility, armed with her clipboard, incessantly badgered Nailah to donate Jahi’s organs. Finally, Marvin asked the woman to leave his wife alone. Immediately after agreeing, the clipboard lady made a beeline for the chapel where Nailah was praying. Ignoring the inappropriateness of time and place, the social worker again harassed her to donate Jahi’s organs. She even accosted Jahi’s then-16-year-old cousin to inquire when she might get the organs.
At a later date, a man in street clothes brought Nailah a generous bouquet of flowers and expressed his concern, saying he was praying for the family. But the real reason for his visit quickly became apparent. The business card he handed Nailah identified him as a representative from an organ procurement company.
Nailah shed light on why she believes the hospital had, at least in part, a vested interest in Jahi’s demise. While current California medical malpractice law limits damages for pain and suffering to $250,000, the law places no cap on compensatory damages, money awarded to compensate for medical bills. For patients such as Jahi, those bills can mount into the millions.
Further, the medical designation of brain death by the hospital has legally hindered further care for Jahi, delaying her recovery. Even so, further testing has been conducted to assess Jahi’s true condition. The results were conclusive enough to move Mr. Dolan to file a court petition to declare Jahi alive. I believe he will be able to show without a doubt that Jahi is not dead. Her family shares my optimism.
Nailah has witnessed her daughter responding to her voice. While receiving the most basic of care, all of her organs are functioning well, her skin is flawless and she moves. Not bad for a child who’s been “deceased” for nearly a year.
The heads of that hospital have every reason to be quaking in their surgical scrubs. A jury in a court of law won’t look favorably on what they’ve done to Jahi and her family. As if to punctuate the hospital’s callous and arrogant attitude, they continued to send Nailah bills for Jahi’s treatment, even resorting to harassment by phone, to which Nailah responded, “I’ll think about paying you after I sue you.” That ended further communication.
To other moms who find themselves in similar situations, Nailah says, “Follow your own heart because these doctors don’t always know what’s going on. You need to fight for your children and be their voice.”