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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This is an archived article and the information in the article may be outdated.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.

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.


  • Christine moore

    This is terribly sad!!! Two months ago me and my son lost his father similar to this. He had a tumor removed from his brain that was told be a simple operation. The surgery went fine and he came out good! But his brain started to swelling so he had to go back for a second surgury didnt recover went brain dead shortly died. We dnt knw what happened he was so healthy and we was assured the opperation and him will be fine! He was gonna be released to go home two days after surgery!!! Something is not right and went wrong… I pray for you guys and hope the lord interviene and give u hope and answers for your baby. God bless you all!!

  • Anonymous

    This has lawsuit written ALL over it!!! There isn’t supposed to be THAT much bleeding with a tonsilectomy. Bless the child. She won’t recover from the brain injury, she’s dead. I have worked around these things in a hospital for four years now and these kind of injuries I have seen all too often. I’m a nurse on the surgery floor where I live in Alabama. But there will be a huge lawsuit come from this one. A thirteen year old shouldn’t die from an innocent surgery. My sister is 12 and had the same surgery done. She came out just fine. Her surgery was a year ago. I hope the family finds justice for the daughter, niece, and grand daughter that they love. God bless the family and I will pray for you.

    • Krystal

      This is a sad sad SAD situation. All you can do now is pray to God and allow Him to do His work! Pray that God gives His peace that surpasses ALL understanding! I cannot say what happened, but based off of this information CLEARLY something went wrong. I hate the fact of the family having to deal with this and I know its NO where near easy but TRUST GOD and let Him work this out. My deepest thoughts, concerns and prayers go out to this family!!!!

    • GaBarngodess

      I would hate to know that you were my nurse. Yes, there can be this much bleeding with not only a tonsillectomy, but with any type of procedure if something is wrong. A tonsillectomy is not a simple snip and be done as it is made out to be. Also, the older you are the harder it is and more risk of bleeding out. I pray for this family and I do not believe it should be the hospitals or anyone else for that matter to tell anyone you cannot remain on life support after such a short amount of time. I do have faith and believe in miracles. Such a sad time for all.

    • Obama

      You are the reason why the healthcare system is flawed. Sue if something goes wrong. I am sure there was more to the surgery if they moved her to ICU after the surgery. Also, Doctors are people. They make mistakes. Why sue someone for one mistake when they save so many lives?

  • Sue

    What a terrible tragedy! I am so sorry for her and her family. My prayers are with all of you. She sounds like such a sweet girl.

  • Tracy Whitten

    My nephew overdosed on four different types of drugs. He was sent to Huntsville Hospital and put on life support. They wanted to pull him off as well. Said technically he was already dead and that we were just delaying it. My sister-in-law, who is a nurse, said they were correct medically speaking. BUT, we anointed him with oil, praying for him and he began to gag and cough. That’s been over either years ago and he’s walking around and living normal. Only God can do something like that! Hospitals and doctors (for the most part) do what they can. What they are trained to do. But some things, like living or dying, is not their area of expertise… I pray God does the same for this family..

  • Brenda Jordan

    My prayers are with this family and precious girl.We’ve gone through a similar thing with my husband at huntsville,Hosp,he had back surgery that went well,was in recovery and they were removing the breathing tube to go to a room , could’nt breath on his on and they resedated him and re placed the tube and lost oxygen to the brain,we were told he had very little brain activity and he would be a veg. And I was selfish to leave him like that,but I know my God is an awesome God and ask them to give him time to heal from the brain injury,that we were praying for a miracle,that dr. Said if we get a miracle we can get it tonight,we are doing another brain scan in the morning,I said fine but we’re not turning him off today,tomorrow, or the next day,give us time we spent 64 days in the hosp. Had to have a feeding tubee and a trake put in thats what they need to do for her and went to a nursing facility in Lynchburg,Tn. For 3 months when he gradually improved and had therapy.We are at home for 10 months and have had home therapy and he is doing good,not at 100 percent but walks with a cane or walker and what a blessing to have him ,Our miracle❤️And I give God all the credit and praise.She’s in God’s hand ,thy will be done! I’m praying for this family and the care takers.

  • Debra

    My niece had a similar diagnosis. The med team and neurosurgeon gave us NO hope that she would live. We were basically planning a funeral,but two days later she showed signs of brain activity. They had told us she would need 24/7 nursing care for the rest of her life if she did live!The 3rd day she opened her eyes half way and started to recognize everyone who was visiting her. She was released from the hospital a week and a half later,walking and talking. God works in different ways. Why not give the family some time to let the swelling go down and see what happens then. Maybe the hospital doesn’t want to pay for her care for the rest of her life if she would need a nursing home. SHAME ON THE HOSPITAL!

  • soldier

    all i can do is cry. you can never prepare for death it is always sudden and devestating. i watched both my parents die. its very painful. i’m praying for the loved ones.

  • Brenda jordan

    Contact an attorney!!! don’t think they can make you do anything,they are responsible the least they can do is give her time to heal our bodies are made to heal itself ,praying for her and her family,I was in your shoes sept. Of last year and he is home with me and doing pretty good!

    • Koifry

      If her insurance is government, and provided by the affordable care act, the hospital can contact the feds and have her removed from life support against the family’s wishes. Clause states that if the patient shows more cost to state to keep alive, than a chance of recovery it is the right of the government (if you’re on Obamacare), to save the taxpayers money. I wish this family the best of luck.

  • Valerie

    As tragic as this is, there comes a time when one must face reality and let go and leave it in the hands of the great physician. I believe in miracles because I am a miracle. I was in a coma and on life support for 5 days when I was 18. My parents were prepared for the worst and were told if I did survive, I would be a vegetable and require 24 hour care. There were so many days in the recovery process where I wished my parents had just pulled the plug. There are other days I am glad they didn’t. This is a tough situation for this family to be in as well as the hospital.

  • kathy

    Had a cousin who was in a wreck and after 5 days with head injuries “they” were ready to pull the plug. Her mom stood her ground and said NO. Several more days passed with everyone praying, Amy is alive and well today. Sure there are some physical limitation but she is an answer to a lot of prayer. She is a miracle. Will be praying for your family that you to will have a miracle!

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