One can only imagine the shock Nailah Winkfield felt when she saw her 13-year-old daughter in the intensive care unit, recently out of surgery, bleeding from the mouth.
Nurses told her "it was normal," according to her attorney's account. They gave Winkfield a container to capture the copious amounts of blood coming from the girl's mouth and nose. Winkfield asked for a doctor, but she was only given a bigger container and a suction device.
Jahi McMath had undergone tonsil surgery and two other procedures to remove tissue from her nose and throat. She soon suffered a heart attack. On Dec. 12, three days after her surgery, hospital doctors declared her "brain dead." A machine keeps her heart beating, but she is not alive.
Unfortunately, mischaracterizations of her condition have helped turn this tragedy into an insane legal fight, still playing out Friday, and a politically charged national debate.
We learned on Tuesday that the Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Network has been working behind the scenes to help the family find a place to transfer the girl. "Jahi McMath has been labeled a 'deceased' person. Yet she retains all the functional attributes of a living person, despite her brain injury," the organization said.
Sadly, that's not true. We're not talking about someone in a coma. We're also not talking about Schiavo, the Florida woman in a persistent vegetative state who was the center of a seven-year fight over whether to keep her alive. Jahi's condition is much worse. Unlike Schiavo, in Jahi's case, there is no brain function.
The sudden loss of a child -- within the confines of a hospital, no less -- would devastate and traumatize any parent. The overwhelming emotional blow would understandably trigger Elisabeth Kübler-Ross' grief stages, starting with denial and anger.
Winkfield is no exception. Unfortunately, those around her aren't helping. Instead, they seem to be reinforcing false hope. Winkfield is being misled by the Schiavo Network; her attorney keeps battling to keep the respirator running and move Jahi to a care facility; and members of the media repeatedly describe the machine as "life support."
Alameda County Superior Court Judge Evelio Grillo had temporarily blocked the hospital from shutting it off. On Friday, with a Tuesday deadline looming, the two sides reached agreement allowing a care team to remove the girl from the hospital, while remaining on a ventilator, and take her to an undetermined location -- provided Winkfield assumes full responsibility.
Winkfield's attorney, Christopher Dolan, had argued that if the hospital turned off the machine, Jahi would suffer "irreparable harm." He cited cases finding that individuals, or their guardians, have a right to determine their medical treatments, even if they might lead to death.
Thus, he had argued to the state Court of Appeal, "if a person has a constitutional right to end their life they have an equal, if not greater right to undertake measures to prolong their life."
But Jahi has no life to prolong. That was established by not only the hospital's physicians, but also Dr. Paul Fisher, chief of child neurology at Stanford, who was appointed by Grillo to provide an independent evaluation.
Keeping Jahi on a respirator will not bring her back. So there would be no "irreparable harm" in removing it because the worst outcome has already occurred.
Unfortunately, some news reporting contributes to the misunderstandings.
"Court blocks hospital from disconnecting Jahi McMath from life support," read a CNN website headline on Monday. While this newspaper thoughtfully explored the issue of brain death, it has also mischaracterized the legal fight as one of whether to maintain "life support." CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox, NPR, Associated Press and the Washington Post did the same.
For all the legal maneuvering and public debate, nothing will change Jahi's tragic condition, and only time will begin to ease the horrific grief her mother feels. Those surrounding Winkfield would serve her best by providing support rather than fueling false hope.