Parents' Court Battle Over Ending Daughter's Life Support

In years past, Javona Peters spent Christmas at home with her family, surrounded by gifts and the sounds of caroling. But this year, the 16-year-old who dreamed of becoming a nurse spent the holiday in a coma, surrounded, instead, by hospital staff and medical equipment.

Peters has remained in a vegetative state since she came out of what doctors describe as routine brain surgery at Montefiore Medical Center, in New York City on Oct. 17. Her lungs work on their own but she has a tube that facilitates breathing. She receives food through a tube and is unable to hear, see, speak, move, talk, eat or think.

Now, her parents, unmarried and estranged, are battling over the future of their daughter and whether she should remain on life support.

"When you see your kid go into the hospital, and then find out she can't talk or move, it is not a good feeling," Leonard Peters, who wants his daughter to remain on life support, told

Javona's mother, Janet Joseph, is in court to get full custody of her daughter in order to sue the hospital for malpractice and potentially determine her daughter's fate.

"It is not up to me to decide who lives and who dies," Peters said. "I don't give life and I don't take it away."

Javona lived with her mother in Rhode Island and saw her father about once a month at his home in Mount Vernon, N.Y. Her mother has filed papers in Bronx Supreme Court to be named her daughter's guardian. The hearing, is slated for Jan. 7.

Both Javona's parents signed consent forms before the routine procedure, called a ventriculostomy. The operation, in which doctors drill into the skull to relieve fluid on the brain, generally takes 90 minutes.

The girl was operated on by James Goodrich, director of pediatric surgery at Montefiore, and famous for leading the surgical team that separated conjoined Filipino twins in 2003.

Two days after the operation, Javona had not awakened, a result, the hospital would eventually say in a statement, of an "unforeseeable reaction to a routine anesthesia agent." The family says it was a full three weeks later when the family finally learned the whole story of what happened.

Javona, born with a brain condition, was first treated by Goodrich when she was 3 years old.

Peters said it was days before the family learned Javona would not awaken from the coma.

"The girl is breathing on her own and anything remains possible," said Montefiore spokesman Steve Osborne. "The court action will only give the mother the right to sue the hospital."

Lawyers for Javona's mother have compared the parents' legal battle to the seven-year-long dispute between the parents and husband of Terri Schiavo. Schiavo was on a feeding tube for seven years while her family fought over ending her life support. In 2005, Florida courts granted the request of her husband, Michael, to remove the tube.

"You don't need me to tell you this is a tragedy," said Ed Gersowitz, a partner in the firm representing Javona's mother. "This girl had been living with her mother her whole life, and her mother should determine her fate."

The mother's lawyer, Jeff Korek, told the New York Daily News, Wednesday, that "if the father chooses to fight it, and the hospital refuses to honor the mother's wishes, it could become a case like Terri Schiavo."

Medical ethicists, however, disagree. "This case is different, in that Schiavo was an adult," said Steven Miles, a medical ethicist at the University of Minnesota Center for Bioethics.

Despite being younger than 18, however, Javona was old enough, Miles said, that she probably expressed wishes about what to do if she was in such a situation, and the courts should take those wishes into account.

"This shouldn't be a matter of the family members' beliefs and values," Miles said. "In a contest, the decision should go to who speaks with the most loving and intimate knowledge of the daughter. … The mother may have been the main custodian, but that both parents signed consent forms, speaks to both their involvement."

Miles added that, in similar cases, 90 percent of adults in intensive care receive medically managed deaths. The rate is slightly lower for minors, about 85 percent.

Miles also said it can sometimes take days for the effects of brain damage to be fully known, and the hospital may not have intentionally tried to hide information from the family.

In a statement, the hospital called Javona's condition "completely unexpected," and said its "medical and nursing teams continue to provide the very best care to Javona."