Jahi’s Family Is Not Alone in Dealing With Life and Death Decisions

Many families face situations like that of the 13-year-old, brain-dead California girl who is being kept on a ventilator.

Posted: 01/10/2014 06:03 PM EST

Nailah Winkfield, the mother of Jahi McMath, along with Jahi's uncle Omari Sealy (R), speak with the media outside Children's Hospital and Research Center in Oakland, California, in late December. (Photo: REUTERS/Norbert von der Groeben)

The case of Jahi McMath has served as a national reminder of the heartbreaking decisions that families face once a loved one has been deemed to be brain dead. It is a situation that is played out thousands of times each year, including in African-American families, all in heart-wrenching and highly emotional circumstances.

The case of Jahi McMath is just one highly prominent example. The family of the 13-year-old girl from northern California has been cast in a media spotlight for insisting that their daughter remain on life support despite the fact that the doctors have determined that her brain has severely limited functions, if any at all.

She was moved to an undisclosed hospital once the doctors in Oakland determined that they would remove her from a ventilator.

In fact, this week, the lawyer for the family said that the girl’s body had deteriorated badly since she was declared brain-dead at the hospital in Oakland on Dec. 12.

“This is a very difficult and painful decision for this family and for many families who face this kind of situation,” said Rahn K. Bailey, chairman of department of psychiatry at Meharry Medical College in Nashville and the immediate past president of the National Medical Association, speaking with BET.com.

“It’s complicated because many people don’t have a written or signed document that expresses their wishes in a circumstance like this,” Bailey said.

He said it is critical for people to have a living will, which indicates how families should deal with relatives who are faced with decisions on whether to keep a loved one on life support. “It’s essential in this day in age, because people are living longer – including in the African-American community – than we did decades ago or a century ago.”

However, it is a topic few teenagers consider, he acknowledged. And in the case of Jahi McMath, the parents were determined to keep the teenager tethered to the ventilator, despite her condition.

Jahi went to the hospital to have surgery to remove her tonsils, adenoids and uvula on Dec. 9 at Children’s Hospital Oakland. She went into cardiac arrest and was declared by the doctors to be brain dead and suffering significant bleeding in her brain.

She was examined by three neurologists, who determined that the teenager was not capable of breathing on her own and that there was no sign of electrical activity in the brain.

But her family obtained a court order to maintain her breathing on a ventilator and secured permission to move her to another facility. They have maintained that she is alive as long as her heart is beating.

For many families, there are overarching religious considerations with many feeling compelled to go through extraordinary measures to keep their loved one breathing.

“I have seen people over the years who feel strongly that they should keep their family member on a ventilator,” said the Rev. James C. Perkins, the pastor of Greater Christ Baptist Church in Detroit and vice president of the Progressive National Baptist Convention, speaking with BET.com.

“I have encountered people who have what they consider to be strong religious views on this kind of situation,” Perkins said. “But I try to help the family understand that, as painful as it is, death is a part of life and that God will be there for us in death as in life.”

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