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Answers to Your Questions About Life, Death, and the Jahi McMath Case

Is Jahi McMath alive or dead?


The girl's family says the hospital was "hellbent" on ending her life and believe she is still alive. Yet the hospital where she had surgery declared her dead and contends that she cannot be brought back. Some say the Jahi McMath case is simply the story of a religious family struggling to let go of a loved one.

Which is it? This story is more than just an open and shut case, and it brings up a lot of questions and beliefs about life and death that affect us all.

So, what happened to Jahi McMath?

Jahi McMath was a 13-year-old 8th grader in California who went to an Oakland hospital in December for surgery on on her tonsils, nose, and throat to treat sleep apnea. People with sleep apnea pause in breathing over and over while they sleep, which disrupts their rest and causes exhaustion and other health problems.

Though Jahi was responding well shortly after the surgery, she soon suffered from a heart attack and severe blood loss. Doctors declared her brain-dead.

Of course, some are wondering whether the procedure was necessary in Jahi's case.

In court last week, the hospital agreed to keep Jahi on a ventilator while she's transferred somewhere else. She was moved last night, released into her family's custody, to an undisclosed location.

The question is this: Is Jahi alive?

What does 'brain-dead' mean?

It's when all brain activity stops - a kind of death. It's not the same thing as being in a coma or vegetative state:

Jahi's doctors say she is brain-dead - in other words, dead. Not mostly dead, but truly dead. The family interprets her breathing on a ventilator as evidence that she is still alive and believe her brain can somehow be jump-started.

But the doctors say it's over.

What does Jahi's family want?

Nailah Winkfield, Jahi's mother, wrangled for weeks with the hospital where Jahi had her surgery. One thing she wants is answers:

"They have not given me a reason yet of why she went into cardiac arrest. They haven't even given me a reason for her bleeding. They haven't given me a reason that they couldn't stop the bleeding. The only thing they keep pushing for me is to get her off their ventilator."

Now that she's left Children's, it's unclear whether she remains on a ventilator.

Winkfield and her family believe that Jahi can recover with time and care. They even raised over $50 thousand - though no doctor supports their claims that she is still alive.

The family's belief and faith in a miracle bringing Jahi back to them - rooted in religion - is steadfast, and stronger than their belief in the medical evidence.

And what does the hospital say?

A pediatricians' group in 2011 at Children's Hospital Oakland, where Jahi McMath had her surgery.

A pediatricians' group in 2011 at Children's Hospital Oakland, where Jahi McMath had her surgery. (eLi) / Flickr

Doctors at the hospital contend that Jahi is brain dead and will not - cannot - come back from this tragedy. She was ruled dead by the hospital three days after her surgery, and then by a judge back in December and by the county coroner last Friday.

In other words, Jahi McMath is medically and legally dead.

An excerpt from the hospital's statement on December 23rd:

"We have the deepest sympathy for Jahi's mother who wishes her daughter was alive; but the ventilator cannot reverse the brain death that has occurred and it would be wrong to give false hope that Jahi will ever come back to life."

The hospital refused to fit Jahi with a tubes for breathing and feeding when it released her body to her family. Why? Because, they say, she is dead, and dead people do not need air or food.

The hospital's chief of pediatrics said this:

“Our hearts go out to the family as they grieve for this sad situation and we wish them closure and peace.”

Has there ever been a dispute over life support like this?


One of the most high-profile and memorable life-support disputes ever was that of Terri Schiavo, who entered a vegetative state in 1990 after a heart attack. While Schiavo's husband argued that Terri wouldn't want to live in a permanent vegetative state, her parents, devout Catholics, argued to keep her alive via a feeding tube.

After over a decade of arguing in court, and even (failed) congressional intervention, Terri Schiavo died in 2005 after officials removed her feeding tube. An autopsy revealed that her brain damage was irreversible.

Terri Schiavo's parents have voiced their support for Jahi.

What happens now?

Good question.

Jahi was actually released to the coroner's office in Alameda County, Calif.

A facility in New York has said that it will care for Jahi. Will it come to that?

The family's lawyer said,

“If it is unethical to give someone hope, then what are we going to do? Shut down the churches, the schools?”

Are there any other cases like this?

Yes. One dispute in going on right now in Texas.

Marlise Munoz, a paramedic, suffered a pulmonary embolism the week after Thanksgiving, leaving her dead. But the state of Texas is keeping her "alive" because she's pregnant - against her own wishes and those of her husband and parents.

And even though the fetus' condition is unknown (beyond that it's alive), due to a state law, Munoz is now essentially an incubator.

Is Munoz both dead and alive at the same time? How can that be? What rights does she have, if any? Why is the state allowed to overrule her and her family's wishes? And how about Jahi McMath - does her family have the right to keep her on a breathing machine based on their hope and faith, against medical experts and courts ruling that she is dead? If someone can be kept breathing, should they, always? When does life end?


Consider your end-of-life wishes >>

See a Facebook page supporting Jahi's family >>

Images used under Creative Commons licensing.

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Answers to Your Questions About Life, Death, and the Jahi McMath Case

Lily Altavena

Lily is currently a TV news producer in Dallas, Texas. Previously, she was a production assistant at MSNBC. She is also a recent NYU grad. She interned for Ann Curry’s team at NBC News, The New York Times, The Village Voice, and the education nonprofit She’s the First. Her interests range from politics to education to comedy. She is not actually a dinosaur. Follow: @lilyalta.

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One Response

  1. YasminaMata says:

    I believe a fetus is a separate entity with a will to live, that grows and thrives, even though it is dependent on external support for living, it is very different than being dead or brain dead.