Family wants to keep life support for girl brain dead after tonsil surgery

This is an archived article and the information in the article may be outdated. Please look at the time stamp on the story to see when it was last updated.
Data pix.

Before 13-year-old Jahi McMath went into a surgery meant to improve her quality of life, she had a terrible premonition.

"The worst thing about all of this is that Jahi told my sister, 'I don't want to get this surgery, something bad is going to happen. I'm not going to wake up,' " Jahi's uncle Omari Sealey told CNN in a phone interview Monday.

She went in to have her tonsils out. Now, Jahi is brain dead, her family says, and they are fighting to keep her on a ventilator.

Jahi suffered from pediatric obstructive sleep apnea, which caused severe snoring, stop-and-go breathing in her sleep, a lack of an attention span and urinating on herself.

"When you have obstructive sleep apnea, there is a cessation of breathing, so you are not getting enough oxygen to the brain. This can affect your energy levels, your attention span; you can grow poorly and have problems with obesity," said Dr. Lisa Thebner, a pediatrician whom CNN consulted for this story.

Jahi's mother, Nailah, and stepfather, Marvin Winkfield, had a sleep study done on Jahi and got two medical opinions on her case. Both times, doctors recommended a tonsillectomy to improve her condition.

"They said that she would have more energy, focus more, lose weight and the urinating would stop," Sealey said.

On the morning of Monday, December 9, Nailah and her mother, Sandy Chatman, took Jahi to Oakland Children's Hospital. Chatman, Jahi's grandmother, is a nurse in Kaiser Oakland's Surgery Department with more than 30 years of experience in the medical field. On that day, she took an active role in watching her granddaughter's progress.

"After the surgery, she (Jahi) was fine. She went into the recovery room. She was alert and talking, and she was asking for a Popsicle because she said her throat hurt. As part of the procedure, she was meant to spend the night in ICU," Sealey said. "When she got moved to ICU, there was a 30-minute wait until any family member could go see her. Upon entry, they saw that there was way too much blood."

"She lost four pints of blood. She had to have four blood transfusions. She had two liters of blood pumped out of her lungs, not including what was in her stomach," Sealey said. "There was an enormous amount of blood, and we kept asking, 'Is this normal?' Some nurses said I don't know and some said yes. There was a lot of uncertainty and a lack of urgency."

Thebner says complications can arise during a tonsillectomy because the affected area has a lot of blood vessels.

"Anytime you go into surgery, it is unusual to have these complications, but they are real despite the fact that they are low risk," she said. "This was a highly unusual complication."

Back in the intensive care unit, Jahi quickly took a turn for the worse.

Sealey said that when Chatman noticed that her granddaughter's oxygen levels were dangerously low, she called for help.

Jahi went into cardiac arrest. The medical staff did chest compressions in an attempt to revive her and tried different medicines to clot her blood, but nothing seemed to work.

On Tuesday, a CT scan revealed that two-thirds of Jahi's brain was swollen.

"During the resuscitation, she lost a lot of oxygen to the brain, and now she was brain damaged. They (doctors) feared that it could progress and get worse, and it did. Now she is 100% brain damaged. Medically dead," Sealey said.

CNN could not independently confirm the medical facts and timeline provided by Sealey.

Children's Hospital & Research Center Oakland spokeswoman Melinda Krigel cited privacy laws when asked about the case.

A statement provided by Krigel and signed by the chief of pediatrics, Dr. David Durand, read: "Jahi's family has requested that we not share any details of her case with the media. We can say that, as whenever we see a medical or surgical complication, we are reviewing her case very closely. Our hearts go out to her family, and we want to support them during this extremely difficult time."

A sweet girl

Jahi was an eighth-grade student at E.C. Reems Academy of Technology and Arts.

Her uncle described her as "the sweetest more purest, innocent girl there was."

"She always smiled," Sealey said. "She would just smile and giggle. She had a personality everyone wanted to be around. She was your favorite person. She was a big sister and she had a little sister in kindergarten class, and every day, she would drop her off first before going to her classroom."

When told that his niece was brain dead, he said, the entire family went into "complete devastation."

"Shocking disbelief. We have never had to deal with a death of anyone close in our family, and we have a big family. I was in complete shock, my heart was racing as I was running down the hallways of the hospital," Sealey said.

He said that by Thursday, December 12, Jahi was declared medically dead. Additional testing confirmed the tragic news on Friday, December 13.

All along, Jahi's family has been by her side.

"We pray over her daily. We kiss her. I charge her iPod and make sure it is in her ears every night when I sleep next to her," Sealey said.

But on Monday, Jahi's family realized they would be forced to say goodbye.

"On Monday, we had to come to grips that she is legally dead and we do not have the option to say we want her to stay on the ventilator and on life support. The coroner is coming for Jahai," Sealey said.

Medically dead

An official from the Oakland coroner's office told CNN that Jahi's death was reported to the office Thursday.

"Once a death is reported to us, we have a duty and responsibility to immediately proceed to where the body lies, examine the body, make identification, make inquiry into the circumstances, manner, and means of death, and, as circumstances warrant, either order its removal for further investigation or disposition, or release the body to the next of kin," the official said, quoting California Government Code Section 27491.

Sealey said his family hoped Jahi could be kept on life support, but hospital representatives told them Monday that would not be an option.

According to the coroner official, "in this case, this office has been very gracious. Technically, we can go where the body lies and we can begin our investigation as to the causes of death. We have been gracious and we have allowed the parents and the hospital to maintain the child on life support."

Krigel, the hospital spokeswoman, said in an e-mail that the hospital does "not have a policy re: terminating life support. We work with the family to determine when that will happen. There are instances when the coroner may request termination, but we always work with the family to respect their wishes."

The official at the coroner's office said the main concern is giving the family the answers they seek, and in order to do that, time is of the essence.

"The larger issue is that when the body is on a ventilator, the body is healing," the official said. "If a medical misadventure occurred, and the body is healing and covering up traces of that misadventure, the coroner pathologist has a more difficult time rendering a cause of death."

"In my opinion, that is the bigger issue we are grappling with here: the balance between giving the parents time to grieve and determining the causes of the child's death before the body heals."

"This child is deceased. From a medical standpoint, this child will never recover. There is a careful balance between letting the parties investigate and allowing the parents to grieve," the official said. "We know the parents want answers, and it is our office that will provide answers if they are available to us. The longer we wait, the less susceptible we are to getting the evidence we need to render a cause of death. Time is not on our side, from a medical investigation standpoint."

But the family has hope.

"We are fully aware that the longer that we wait, any type of evidence can be lost, but my sister has faith that her baby can wake up more than anything else," Sealey said. "She believes that against all odds, against what every doctor has said, yes, she believes."

Sealey confirmed the coroner is scheduled to come for Jahi's body Tuesday but said his family is prepared to fight.

"We are trying to do what we can, every last little bit of fighting, to keep them from doing this," he said.


    • mary h.

      Legal council may be able to help, but only for a short time if at all. I only know to well what this family is going through, as this is how my little brother died, as far as being brain dead. Unfortunately the key word here is dead. She is not in a coma, she is dead, this is not a diagnosis someone miraculously comes out of like a coma. I am not trying to be cold hearted, like I said I’ve been in their shoes, but they are thinking of themselves and not Jahi, even as a child would she want to just lay there being hooked up to machines just to keep her organs living? The family has got to let go and say goodbye to their precious Jahi. She is already gone as they knew her. Rest In Peace sweet Angel.

  • Julia

    Many are crying with you including myself this
    The most devasting news any parents can get! God
    Cover Jahi’s family with peace and grace as they
    Make the hardest decision anyone could make
    Put her in her Heavenly Father’s loving arms
    And rest that she is experiencing eternally joy
    In the presence of The Lord (: You are in my
    Prayers at such life changing devastation but revelation
    From God..this sweet child is forever smiling
    And being your blessed guardian angel

  • holly

    My utmost sympathy goes out to this family. I don’t know this case or what the dr tried to relieve this angels sleep apnea, but I bet the dr didnt push to hard for this little one to lose weight. Instead they probably pushed for the tonsilectomy. Dr’s need to get it together and start having the patients best intrest in thier heart.

  • Teri Newman Hanford

    I just said “Goodby” to my husband of 42 years and it was the most painful moment of my life and I can’t imagine this same circumstance with my child. We believe..and it is hard to let go, but rest in the peace of God in knowing that when she gets to the arms of God she will be whole, complete and perfect in every way and most of all Happy with her new body.Although you will miss her presence here on earth and you will not be able to have any physical contact with her find peace in knowing she yet lives just on the other side. I have learned that death is not a wall to be feared but it is a door to our eternal life and some day we will all open that door and be reunited with our loved ones! She has received the ultimate reward!!! I pray for your strength! Gods loves you all!!!

  • Amy

    I don’t want to give a false hope. But my brother was on life support for 2 months pronounced 100% brain dead from lack of oxygen. He woke up after 2 months with a trach in his throat so he couldn’t talk, but could hold up 1 finger for yes and 2 fingers for no. They don’t always know everything or maybe there’s a God who knows more. Trust in God no matter the outcome. Praying for this family.

  • Paula Whitaker

    I feel so bad for this family. I hope they can find peace and answers at the same time. I don’t blame them, if it were my child, I would want to give her some time to see what happens. If they made a mistake in surgery or in recovery then maybe they are wrong now too. I just hope when they let her go, the causes can be determined. God please Bless this family,help in making the right decision and give them peace no matter what happens.

  • Lea

    This is so wrong and I feel so bad for this family!! Fight for her she shouldn’t be taken off so soon let them see if she will recover no one knows unless you give it a chance. This is their child and they shouldn’t be fighting like this the hospital needs to leave her alone!! My heart is with this family.

  • karen reinke-alvarez

    I agree with Lea, it’s too soon for her to be taken off of life support. They need to give it a chance! Prayers for this family is all we can give them, rather than criticism and negativity. My love, hope and prayers to Jahi and her family.

  • stfu

    She isn’t going to come out of this. Amy, either you’re a liar, or your brother wasn’t 100% brain dead. Btw, you can speak with a trach in. I know a little girl who speaks with one… I don’t see why they want to prolong the inevitable. Yes, it’s a sad sad story, but no, she’s not going to come back. She’s dead. Dead ppl don’t come back to life. If she comes back, then watch out for other zombies because that is what she would be, a zombie.

  • janet shoen

    God bless this family. my aunts son many years ago passed at 5 years old from having a tonsilectomy. he bled to death.

Comments are closed.

Notice: you are using an outdated browser. Microsoft does not recommend using IE as your default browser. Some features on this website, like video and images, might not work properly. For the best experience, please upgrade your browser.