OAKLAND -- As blood poured from her daughter's mouth, filling up cups and spilling onto her clothing, Nailah Winkfield began to cry. The Oakland mother said nurses reassured her this was "normal" for the type of tonsil and throat surgery Jahi McMath had just finished to treat her sleep apnea, but she could not bear watching the 13-year-old struggle to breathe.
As tears rolled down her cheek, Winkfield said her daughter mouthed the words: "Don't cry mom."
"It was like she was still worried about me even though blood was coming out of her mouth," a tearful Winkfield said in her first extensive interview since her daughter made national headlines when Children's Hospital Oakland doctors declared her brain-dead Dec. 11 after¿ tonsil surgery complications caused cardiac arrest.
It was the last time Jahi's brown eyes would open.
Her doctors insist she is brain dead and have asked a judge to remove her from life support. Her mother, through an emotional letter, a court declaration and an extensive interview with this newspaper Saturday, pleaded for prayers, time and public understanding of how the Oakland hospital won't let her baby stay "warm." She also wanted the world to know about the shy teen who was less worried about her serious case of sleep apnea than her doctors or parents were, and more concerned with caring for her three siblings.
A judge has given the family a respite until Monday, when an independent doctor will examine Jahi for brain activity.
What can't be argued is the mother's pain.
"My daughter sits on life support. I feel like she is on Death Row," Winkfield wrote in a letter to the public Saturday. "The clock is ticking -- ticking down. Children's Hospital Oakland says she is dead ... I put her in their hands, now they want to wash their hands of her."
While hospital officials have said they are limited in what they can discuss due to patient confidentiality rules, court documents filed by hospital attorneys say the surgery was "complicated" and included procedures to remove tissue elsewhere in the throat and nose. They acknowledge the outcome was tragic, but say it's futile to treat a "dead" patient.
"Our hearts go out to Nailah, her family and the community," Dr. David Durand, chief of pediatrics at the hospital, said in a statement Saturday. "We understand the intense grief of a mother who has lost a child. We are committed to fully investigating what caused this catastrophic outcome from this complicated surgery. As medical professionals, it is our responsibility to ensure that we don't create hope where there is none. When one's brain ceases to function, it never restarts."
Winkfield described her daughter as shy, preferring to avoid confrontation.
"If she knew about all this attention she would blush," Winkfield said.
The eightth-grader acted older than her age, setting the table and washing dishes for her family's meals, ironing her sibling's school uniforms and hanging out with friends on their front porch in Oakland. Her mother just started letting her take the bus with friends to her favorite spot, the ice cream shop Cream on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, where she would order her favorite snickerdoodle cookie sandwich with vanilla ice cream.
Jahi had always snored, but about a year ago it became louder. She told her mom at one point: "Mom, I've never had a dream."
Her interrupted sleep started affecting her grades in school, which is common with severe sleep apnea cases, and that's when her mother became concerned.
"It really didn't bother her. She was so used to it, but as her mother it bothered me because I knew the effects," Winkfield said.
A pediatrician visit led to an ear, nose and throat expert, which led to an evaluation that determined she had a "very severe case" of sleep apnea.
Winkfield's research led her to the Oakland children's hospital, where the surgery was performed.
The family arrived Dec. 9 for the noon surgery and Jahi told her mom: "I am scared Mommy."
"I said, 'Why Jahi?'" Winkfield wrote in her letter. "She said, 'I am afraid I won't wake up.' I told her it was going to be fine, it was a simple procedure. I should have listened to her."
The surgery was uneventful, the family thought, and a relieved Jahi awoke from sedation and asked for a Popsicle.
Nurses took her to the ICU where she was supposed to spend the night, but staff would not let Winkfield in, Winkfield said.
After about 45 minutes of asking what was happening, Winkfield said she was brought to the ICU, where Jahi was sitting up in bed bleeding from her mouth.
Winkfield said nurses told her it was "normal," but the bleeding increased and the nurses gave her a cup and paper towels to contain it. Soon blood spilled from Jahi's nose, Winkfield said, and she tried to contain it with a small bucket, napkins and a suction device.
Unable to speak and drowsy on morphine, Jahi wrote her notes, Winkfield said, asking "Is this blood?" "Why am I bleeding so much?"
Winkfield's mother, a nurse, replaced her in the ICU, but when Winkfield heard an alert called for Room 10 -- Jahi's room -- she said she rushed back to find staff attempting to restart her daughter's heart. Then Winkfield blacked out, she said, and was admitted herself.
She found out her daughter was in a coma from her own first floor hospital bed, she said.
'I won't stop'
Winkfield said since Jahi slipped into a coma the hospital has been trying to "pull the plug."
In court documents, she explained her families difficulties with Durand and other staff.
At a meeting, Durand said he would not authorize a feeding tube, telling her no life support can be given because she is "dead, dead, dead, dead," according to her court statement. The family also battled Durand for medical records.
"He was condescending and almost angry as if I were stupid. I am not stupid. I know my daughter and she is still here," Winkfield said in her court declaration.
Meanwhile, the hospital, in its court filing, listed bullet points of different ways the hospital has bent rules and found ways to accommodate the family. They argued five doctors declared Jahi brain dead and "to be blunt, Children's is currently merely preserving Ms. McMath's body from the natural post-mortem course of events."
"The only thing I can do is pray," Winkfield said. "I'm just one woman fighting a whole corporation. This is just a business to them. I won't stop."
Her attorney, Christopher Dolan, said even if the doctor next week rules Jahi brain dead, the family will file an appeal and stay with the California Court of Appeals and will take it to the California Supreme Court, if necessary.
"I will not stop until I have done everything in my power legally to stop this injustice," he said.
On Saturday, Winkfield painted Jahi's fingernails and toenails pink with silver sparkles.
"She always liked to match," her mom said with a smile. The family have placed prayer beads around Jahi's wrist, diamond earrings in her ears and they pump a steady dose of Chris Brown and Beyoncé into her earbuds from her iPod.
"Her blood pressure goes up with the fast songs," her mother said. Winkfield said her daughter twitches when she runs her finger along her feet and other areas.
"I can touch her, she is warm," Winkfield wrote. "She responds to my touch. I can love her -- I can feel her love. When she was in my belly I fell in love with her. Her heartbeat from the beginning of her life was my heartbeat until God, through a miracle, sparked her heart into existence. Given time I know he will spark her brain awake."
It's unclear how much time Jahi may get, but for now Winkfield baths her with only Dove soap and Victoria's Secret lotion, "just like she likes it." Bible scriptures surround the walls, given to her from another mother who told her she pinned the same to her son's wall and he awoke from three weeks in a coma.
Contact Matthias Gafni at 925-952-5026. Follow him at Twitter.com/mgafni.