Who is Dead?

The February 5, 2018 New Yorker carried a story of Jahi McMath and her family. In 2013, McMath went into Oakland’s Children’s Hospital for a routine surgery for tonsil removal. After the surgery, she experienced extreme blood loss and her heart stopped beating. Two days later, a doctor declared her brain dead. Her family battled to keep her hooked up to a ventilator and eventually removed her to St. Peter’s Hospital in New Jersey, where a physician can overrule the diagnosis of brain death if “such a declaration would violate the personal religious beliefs of the individual.”1 However, in August 2014, that hospital also discharged her, declaring her brain dead.

Despite all of this, and with support from Dr. Alan Shewmon, the family continued to believe McMath was alive. McMath’s mother, Nailah Winkfield, constantly talked to her and believed that she responded. Her brain scans showed “large areas” of McMath’s cerebrum “structurally intact.”2 Winkfield, her husband Marvin, and McMath’s sister Jordyn continued to provide care in their home until her final hospitalization this summer. McMath died on June 22, 2018 of liver failure, according to the death certificate.

The question of who is alive and who is dead is not new, but the answer is one that has changed historically. In the US, one of the biggest shifts came in August 1968, when a committee consisting mostly of doctors, but also a lawyer, a historian, and a theologian, published an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association, acknowledging that the question of who is dead is problematic.3 “More than medical problems are present. There are moral, ethical, religious, and legal issues.”

Read More – Who is Dead? – Nursing CLIO