Terri Schiavo: how her family could affect Jahi McMath case

Terri Schiavo was taken off life support in 2005 despite her family's protests. Now, her family is intervening to try to keep Jahi McMath on a ventilator.

Carlos Barria/Reuters/File
Bobby Schindler (r.), brother of brain-damaged Florida woman Terri Schiavo, and his sister Suzanne leave the Woodside Hospice after Terri Schiavo died in Pinellas Park, Fla., in 2005. The Terri Schiavo Life and Hope Network is now working with the family of Jahi McMath.

The family of teen Jahi McMath, still struggling to keep the girl connected to a ventilator despite Children’s Hospital’s insistence that she is clinically dead, has a newly revealed ally.

The Terri Schiavo Life and Hope Network, created in honor of the comatose Florida woman whose husband removed her from life support in 2005 against her family’s wishes, has been working with Jahi’s relatives behind the scenes. The goal is to find a facility willing to take the Oakland, Calif., girl in the face of ongoing controversy over whether or not she should be considered deceased. A court has ruled that Jahi must be kept on a ventilator until at least Jan. 7.

The case has grown increasingly acrimonious as the hospital attempts to clarify what it deems medical facts and the family continues to search for alternatives.

“This child is not going to come back,” says Sam Singer, spokesman for Children’s Hospital, who adds that the entrance of the Terri Schiavo foundation “is unfortunate.”

Mr. Singer points out that the hospital is constrained by privacy laws from discussing the medical details of the case but notes that the two cases are different in important ways. Ms. Schiavo was comatose but considered alive, whereas, says Singer, “Jahi is, sadly, deceased.”

The Schiavo Network did not return calls, but in a statement the Network refutes the hospital’s findings about Jahi, denying that she is dead. “She retains all the functional attributes of a living person, despite her brain injury. This includes a beating heart, circulation and respiration, the ability to metabolize nutrition and more. Jahi is a living human being,” it concludes.

Further, the statement asserts that the case is a red flag. “Together with our team of experts, Terri's Network believes Jahi's case is representative of a very deep problem within the U.S. healthcare system – particularly those issues surrounding the deaths of patients within the confines of hospital corporations, which have a vested financial interest in discontinuing life,” the statement reads.

Singer points out that no physician from the Schiavo organization has actually examined Jahi. “It is very unfortunate for the Schiavo Foundation to play on the idea that Jahi might come back to life in a highly emotional case,” he says.

While Children’s Hospital is affiliated with the University of California at San Francisco, it is an independent institution. Singer notes that it will celebrate its 100th anniversary this year, “a century of serving the poor, the indigent and needy, and it loses money continually but does not pull back from this mission.”

Not all legal observers see the Schiavo Network involvement as negative.

“Before this case, more than likely most people had not given thought to the differences between the Schiavo case and the McMath case or to the topic of brain death,” says San Diego Deputy District Attorney Wendy Patrick, who is also an ordained minister. It’s important to realize that while this case involves medical technicalities about when death has clinically arrived, “it is primarily emotional for most people.”

Ms. Patrick sees the dialogue as helpful. Understanding the fine points of these issues is important as many baby boomers nearing retirement tackle questions about end-of-life medical directives, she says. Discussions about these cases bring up the “deepest levels of faith discussions,” whether or not people are overtly religious, and can help people make decisions that could be “very important” to them and their families at some point down the line, she adds.

The “tragic McMath case demonstrates that the very definitions of life and death are deeply philosophical,” says Ben Agger, a sociologist at the University of Texas at Arlington, in an e-mail. This comes as the enduring abortion debate continues to question when life begins, he notes.

Scientific empiricism helped move the world beyond Medieval dogma during and after the 1600s, auguring a world in which evidence, and not faith, resolves disputes, he points out. But this case envelopes a number of issues.

“Science itself can be dogmatic and behave imperially. From the outside, it appears that McMath's parents are buying time not because they really dispute medical science's perspective on brain death but to undergo a necessary grieving process,” says Professor Agger. “For all of us who are parents, it is easy to see why they should have that right.”

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