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‘Brain Death’ at a crossroads

Remember the story of Jahi McMath?

After routine surgery for sleep apnea the summer of 2014, Jahi McMath’s medical team overlooked a bleed that eventually led to cardiac arrest and a catastrophic brain injury. Her medical team declared her “brain dead” and the state of California issued a formal death certificate.

But something unexpected happened: Jahi reached puberty and got her first period.

Her family, already irate at the poor care she was given and quite aware of the history of Black families like theirs receiving substandard care (especially when in vulnerable situations), refused to accept the medical team’s view that she had died. In addition to reaching puberty, Jahi fought off infections, maintained homeostasis, responded with an elevated heart rate to trauma, and more.

But as her family fought for her life, the medical establishment entrusted with her care had quite a different reaction.

David Durand, senior vice-president and chief medical officer of the hospital where Jahi was admitted, dismissed her family’s concerns. According to Jahi’s mother, stepfather, grandmother, brother, and their lawyer, Dr. Durand responded to their concerns by saying, “What is it that you don’t understand?”

He then pounded his fist on the table, saying, “She’s dead, dead, dead.”

That judgment would not stand the test of time.

In 2021, an article in the Journal of Neurological Sciences would declare that Jahi was not brain dead after all, but had something called “responsive unawake syndrome.”

The facts seemed to support that idea. In 2014, after Jahi had been issued a California death certificate, her family moved her to a New Jersey hospital, where a Catholic hospital had agreed to treat her. Jahi lived for four more years, and even convinced people who had once agreed that she was dead that she could respond to her mother’s command to touch her thumb and forefinger together.

How did the American medical community get to a place of dissonance — where one of the most respected physicians in the country could be so confident about the fact a patient had died — and yet be so dramatically contradicted by other experts in the field just a few years later?

Read more at The Pillar 

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