Calif. teen called 'brain dead' gets feeding tube

Saturday - 1/11/2014, 5:10pm EST

Attorney Christopher Dolan, left, representing the family of Jahi McMath, gestures beside Omari Sealey, Jahi's uncle, during a media conference Monday, Jan. 6, 2014, in San Francisco. Dolan said Monday that a critical care team has delivered Jahi McMath to a new facility, but wouldn't say where it was located. McMath, who had surgery for sleep apnea at Children's Hospital Oakland and then had complications, was declared brain dead on Dec. 12, 2013. McMath left the hospital in a private ambulance shortly before 8 p.m. Sunday. She was moved by a critical care team while attached to a ventilator but without a feeding tube. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

TERRY COLLINS
Associated Press

OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) -- The family of a 13-year-old California girl who was declared brain dead after suffering complications from sleep apnea surgery has gotten her the feeding and breathing tubes that they had been fighting for.

Christopher Dolan, the attorney for the girl's family, said doctors inserted the gastric tube and tracheostomy tube Wednesday at the undisclosed facility where Jahi McMath was taken Jan. 5.

The procedure was a success, Dolan said, and Jahi is getting the treatment that her family believes she should have gotten 28 days ago, when doctors at Children's Hospital Oakland first declared her brain dead.

Jahi underwent tonsil surgery Dec. 9, then began bleeding heavily before going into cardiac arrest and being declared brain dead Dec. 12.

Her mother has refused to believe Jahi is dead and went to court to prevent her daughter from being taken off a ventilator.

Jahi's uncle, Omari Sealey, said Monday that she is now being cared for at a facility that shares her family's belief that she still is alive.

The new facility has "been very welcoming with open arms," Sealey said. "They have beliefs just like ours."

Neither Dolan nor the family would disclose the name or location of that facility, which took the eighth-grader after a weekslong battle by her family to prevent Children's Hospital Oakland from removing her from the breathing machine that has kept her heart beating.

But medical experts said the ventilator won't work indefinitely and caring for a patient whom three doctors have said is legally dead is likely to be challenging because -- unlike someone in a coma -- there is no blood flow or electrical activity in either her cerebrum or the brain stem that controls breathing.

The bodies of brain dead patients kept on ventilators gradually deteriorate, eventually causing blood pressure to plummet and the heart to stop, said Dr. Paul Vespa, director of neurocritical care at the University of California, Los Angeles, who has no role in McMath's care. The process usually takes only days but can sometimes continue for months, medical experts say.

"The bodies are really in an artificial state. It requires a great deal of manipulation in order to keep the circulation going," Vespa said.

Brain-dead people may look like they're sleeping, he added, but it's "an illusion based on advanced medical techniques."

Sealey, the girl's uncle, said Monday that Jahi's mother, Nailah Winkfield, is relieved her persistence paid off and "sounds happier." He criticized Children's Hospital for repeatedly telling Winkfield they did not need her permission to remove Jahi from the ventilator because the girl was dead.

Sealey told reporters Monday that Jahi traveled by ground from Children's Hospital to the unnamed facility and there were no complications in the transfer, suggesting she may still be in California.

The $55,000 in private donations the family has raised since taking the case public helped cover the carefully choreographed handoff to the critical care team and transportation to the new location, Sealey said.

"If her heart stops beating while she is on the respirator, we can accept that because it means she is done fighting," he said. "We couldn't accept them pulling the plug on her early."

Meanwhile, an advocacy group is facing sharp criticism for using Jahi's case to try to raise money.

The nonprofit Consumer noted in an email solicitation that it fights for patient safety for families like Jahi's and that it had drafted a proposed November ballot measure that would raise medical malpractice award limits in California.

Dolan, the family attorney, is a board member of Consumer Attorneys of California, the prime group funding the ballot initiative to lift the cap on pain and suffering awards. But he said he was dismayed that Consumer Watchdog used Jahi's name as a fundraising tool.

"Using Jahi's case as an example is wrong and that is not what this case is about," he said in a text message to the Associated Press.

Hospital spokesman Sam Singer also criticized the use of Jahi's case for fundraising, calling it "tasteless and thoughtless."

Consumer Watchdog Executive Director Carmen Balber said the funds were being solicited for the organization's patient safety program, not the political campaign, and none of the money would go to the ballot measure.

"We thought we were being clear," she said. "This email has been construed in ways we didn't expect."

Consumer Watchdog's Christmas Eve email to supporters prominently mentioned the Jahi McMath case to support the need for its advocacy work and for lifting the state's 38-year-old cap on medical malpractice awards.