Great controversy surrounds the question of whether Jahi McMath is dead or alive. Judging from the heated debates in discussion forums all over the internet as well as the video above, strong opinions abound on both sides. Even the medical community can’t agree. Multiple doctors declared Jahi brain dead in December 2013 after surgery complications in California, but at least three doctors have since disputed that, including Dr. Alan Shewmon, a UCLA neurologist, Dr. Calixto Machado, a very credentialed neurologist, medical professor, and recipient of the American Academy of Neurology Lawrence McHenry Award in 2005 for his research in the field, and Dr. Charles J. Prestigiacomo, director of Cerebrovascular and Endovascular Neurosurgery at University Hospital in Newark and chair of the neurological surgery department at Rutgers.
There are many levels of consciousness, such as anesthetized, hypnotized, asleep, comatose, locked in syndrome, and persistent vegetative state. Life itself appears to be a mysterious, spiritual thing. That begs the question, what do we really, I mean really, know about when and where life begins and ends?
Dr. Peter Pressman writes about the definition and diagnosis of brain death. It seems pretty cut and dried and makes scientific sense. However, how do we explain all those cases of patients declared brain dead who recover at some point in the future?
USA Today reported in 2011 that the family of Taylor Hale was told by doctors that the young girl was brain dead and could not recover. Her brain had hemorrhaged and sunk into her spinal column and nothing more could be done for her. Yet Taylor awoke. In 2015, she was reported to still struggle with memory but had returned to school and, with the help of tutors, caught up with her class.
Then there’s George Pickering, pronounced brain dead in January 2015 by doctors at the Tomball Regional Medical Center near Houston. In a tense and dramatic disagreement involving police, George’s father convinced hospital staff to keep his son on life support. Though George still struggles with cognitive issues, his father reports that he is “walking and talking and thinking clearly and remembering his passcode.”
An article on the Bob Enyart Live website, “Brain Dead” means: “Not Dead”; Don’t Trust that Diagnosis”, outlines about ten more cases of people recovering after being given up as dead. More than two years after her ruling of ‘brain dead’ by California doctors, Jahi McMath’s family still stands steadfastly by her in immense love, loyalty, and strength. Recent pictures of Jahi show, not a face of death, but facial features unmistakably maturing from the child of 13 into a lovely young lady of 15.
That leaves so many questions. Are doctors ever wrong? How many wrong diagnoses of brain death occur? Do we need a different definition of brain death? Do we not yet know what death really is? If the medical community can make mistakes of such finality, on which side of caution should we err?