The uncommon case of Jahi McMath

Chest. 2015 Apr;147(4):1144-1151. doi: 10.1378/chest.14-2227.


A 13-year-old patient named Jahi McMath was determined to be dead by neurologic criteria following cardiopulmonary arrest and resuscitation at a hospital in Oakland, California. Her family did not agree that she was dead and refused to allow her ventilator to be removed. The family's attorney stated in the media that families, rather than physicians, should decide whether patients are dead and argued in the courts that the families' constitutional rights of religion and privacy would be violated otherwise. Ultimately, a judge agreed that the patient was dead in keeping with California law, but the constitutional issue was undecided. The patient was then transferred to a hospital in New Jersey, a state whose laws allow families to require on religious grounds that death be determined by cardiopulmonary criteria. Although cases such as this are uncommon, they demonstrate public confusion about the concept of neurologic death and the rejection of this concept by some families. The confusion may be caused in part by a lack of uniformity in state laws regarding the legal basis of death, as reflected in the differences between New Jersey and California statutes. Families who reject the determination of death by neurologic criteria on religious grounds should be given reasonable accommodation in all states, but society should not pay for costly treatments for patients who meet these criteria unless the state requires it, as only New Jersey does. Laws that give physicians the right to determine death by neurologic criteria in other states probably can survive a constitutional challenge. Physicians and hospitals faced with similar cases in the future should follow state laws and work through the courts if necessary.

Publication types

  • Case Reports

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Brain Death*
  • California
  • Death, Sudden, Cardiac*
  • Decision Making / ethics*
  • Fatal Outcome
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Life Support Care / legislation & jurisprudence*
  • Religion and Medicine*
  • Resuscitation / ethics*
  • Resuscitation Orders / legislation & jurisprudence*