January 7

Another View: California case painfully probes the point where life ends

Although a ventilator can make a heart and lungs appear to work, a brain-dead patient is really dead.

Los Angeles Times

Brain death needs a new name, some doctors and bioethicists say. Perhaps it should be called “death via cessation of brain function.” Then, perhaps, the public might better understand that it’s not just a serious coma or a severe brain injury or a persistent vegetative state. It’s the end of life.

The tragic case of Jahi McMath is testing the public’s understanding – and the courts’ mettle – when it comes to brain death. Both have been found lacking.

Jahi is the 13-year-old girl who suffered bleeding and other rare complications after a tonsillectomy and surgery to treat her sleep apnea.

Five doctors, the coroner and a judge have declared her brain-dead, but Jahi’s distraught mother, Nailah Winkfield, has not been willing to accept that this means true death. She took the hospital to court, seeking to keep her daughter on a ventilator. Jahi, she said, is still breathing. She is warm to the touch and her heart is beating.

But actually, Jahi is not breathing. A ventilator is pumping oxygenated air into her lungs, and her heart has responded to the oxygen by beating, Caplan said. That would end if the ventilator were removed. And the lack of any brain activity cannot be reversed. Jahi is sadly and irrevocably dead.

Whether the family is covered by insurance is not known, but neither insurance companies nor taxpayers should have to cover ongoing care for the deceased.

Nailah Winkfield sees her mission as keeping her daughter alive. But in truth, all the courts have allowed her to keep alive is the illusion of life.

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