Family of Comatose Teen Battles Hospital for 'Time to Let God Work'

Jahi McMath is on life support after routine tonsillectomy.

ByABC News
December 18, 2013, 12:06 PM

Dec. 18, 2013— -- Jahi McMath went into Oakland Children's Hospital almost a week ago for a routine tonsillectomy - a surgery thousands of children undergo each year.

But today, her family is thankful to just be able to sit by her bedside, where McMath, 13, is now on life support. She was declared brain dead last Thursday after complications arose during her recovery, her family said. They claim they then had to battle with the hospital to keep McMath on life support while they prayed for a miracle.

"The medicine has not worked. It's time to let God work," said Omari Sealy, McMath's uncle. "We are calling on God and calling on our faith."

Sealey said the family will hold a public prayer service for McMath tonight at Paradise Baptist Church in Oakland.

The family has been outspoken in their criticism of the hospital's handling of McMath's surgery and complications. Sealy said the hospital had been trying to remove McMath from life support until the family presented a cease and desist letter on Monday. Today, they are focusing on spending time with the teenager.

"This is the first time we had a little sense of relaxation," Sealy told ABC News today from the hospital. "We don't have any pressure on us in the hospital. They were planning to come get her yesterday morning, so I had my back against the wall and in complete desperation I was able to get that cease and desist letter."

The hospital said Monday that it cannot comment specifically on McMath's case, but said that it is under review and that there were "misperceptions" about the case. They did not elaborate on what the misperceptions were.

"Our hearts go out to this patient and her family," the hospital's chief of pediatrics, Dr. David Durand, said in a statement from the hospital Monday. "Unfortunately, we have not been authorized by the family to share information with the public about this matter. Consequently, we are not able to correct misperceptions created about this sad situation."

McMath entered the hospital on Dec. 9 to have her tonsils removed to cure her sleep apnea, her family said. After the surgery, family members noticed McMath was bleeding from her mouth and nose, McMath's mother, Nailah Winkfield, told ABC News station KGO.

"My daughter had actual clots sliding out of her mouth and they gave me a cup and said, 'Here, catch them with the cup so we can measure them,'" Winkfield told KGO.

Winkfield said her daughter then experienced cardiac arrest.

"My daughter went into cardiac arrest and died and they brought her back and now she's brain dead," Winkfield told KGO. "She smiled when she walked in this hospital and I told her this surgery is to make you better."

Dr. David Tunkel, an expert in pediatric otolaryngology, told ABC News that deaths from tonsillectomies are more common than many people assume.

The mortality rate for the surgery is between one in 15,000 and one in 40,000, according to the most recent numbers, which date back a few decades, said Tunkel, who is the division director of pediatric otolaryngology at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

More than half a million children undergo tonsillectomies each year, he said.

"Many children used to have it done for strep throat, but now 90 percent or more have it done for breathing problems during sleep, from snoring to obstructive sleep apnea. Those children can be at higher risk for respiratory problems," Tunkel said.

"There's a big path between a complication and becoming brain dead, which is a term I don't use commonly because it's such a rare issue. But certainly any time you're dealing with problems of breathing or safety of the airways, there's always concern that you maintained proper oxygenation," Tunkel said.

The hospital declined to comment on the specifics of McMath's case, but sought to reassure the public.

"Nonetheless, we want to assure the community that we are doing everything in our capacity to provide support to the grieving family. We have been caring for children in this community for over 100 years and have a longstanding commitment to delivering the highest quality care for all," Durand said.