Jahi McMath Case: What Is Brain Death?

By Jenny Tsay, Esq. on January 06, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Jahi McMath, the 13-year-old California girl declared legally brain dead after complications from surgery last month, is now in her mother's custody, pursuant to a court order.

A judge in Alameda County allowed McMath to be moved from Children's Hospital in Oakland, where she underwent a tonsillectomy and other procedures December 9. McMath was taken by private ambulance to an unknown location Sunday night; according to Oakland's KTVU-TV, McMath's mother Nailah Winkfield "will be held accountable for developments that could include Jahi going into cardiac arrest."

Though doctors have agreed that McMath is brain dead, Winkfield still hopes that her daughter will make a full recovery. But what exactly is brain death, and what are the potential legal ramifications?

What Is Brain Death?

Brain death and removing life support are controversial issues, and Jahi McMath's case is no exception. In McMath's case, she went in for surgery to remove her tonsils and tissue from her nose to treat sleep apnea. After she regained consciousness from the surgery, she began bleeding and went into cardiac arrest. Three days later, doctors declared her brain dead, reports the Oakland Tribune.

Patients are considered brain dead when a doctor confirms by a series of tests that there is no higher brain function or brain stem reflexes present, according to WebMD. Unlike patients who are in a coma, brain dead patients have no possibility of being able to breathe or pump blood through bodies if they are removed from the respirator.

To determine if a patient is brain dead, doctors will check to see if the patient responds to minor pain, like pinching the skin. Then, doctors will check for brain stem reflexes. Lastly, doctors take the patient off the respirator to see if increased carbon dioxide levels in the blood will jumpstart the brain. If all these tests fail, then the patient is considered brain dead, reports WebMD.

Since brain dead patients are declared legally and clinically dead, hospitals usually aren't required to keep those patients on life support. However, if a brain dead patient is an organ donor, he or she may be kept on a respirator until his or her organs are removed.

In McMath's case, Children's Hospital wanted to disconnect McMath from a ventilator after she was declared brain dead. Her relatives, however, fought that decision in court, winning a court injunction to keep McMath on a hospital ventilator until January 7.

That injunction is now dissolved, as Jahi McMath is in her mother's custody. McMath's family is declining to disclose details about their plans for her care until she is resettled, KTVU reports.

Related Resources:

Copied to clipboard