SAN FRANCISCO - The mother of Jahi McMath fought for more than four years to keep her daughter alive, now she is fighting to bury the girl.
McMath, a 17-year-old, former Oakland girl at the center of the medical and religious debate over brain death, was pronounced dead in New Jersey on June 22 from excessive bleeding and liver failure after an operation to treat an intestinal issue. A death certificate was issued that same day.
McMath had previously been declared brain dead after suffering complications during surgery at USCF Benioff Children's Hospital Oakland to remove her tonsils in December 2013. Alameda County issued a death certificate following the medical declaration.
Now, with two death certificates, McMath’s mother, Nailah Winkfield, is entangled in a legal and bureaucratic dispute about which one accurately portrays the circumstances and the exact date of McMath’s death. Winkfield wants the New Jersey certificate honored because she never believed her daughter died in Oakland.
Until the dispute is resolved, a burial permit can’t be issued, said her attorney Chris Dolan. The family wants closure and hopes to hold a celebration of life service on Friday. Winkfield said she would like McMath buried at Mount Eden Cemetery in Hayward.
“This family can’t even be assured that they can bury their daughter,’’ Dolan said at a Tuesday afternoon news conference, where Winkfield spoke out for a first time since her daughter was pronounced dead in New Jersey.
“I’m very heartbroken over my daughter's passing,'' she said. "But I’m very proud of her because she defied all the odds."
Winkfield said she is “very grateful" for the extra 4 1/2 years she had with her daughter. “I’m so grateful that I did not pull the plug on her,’’ she said.
The teen had been on life support and received care in New Jersey because that state accommodates people who practice religions that don't recognize brain death.
Winkfield has said her Christian beliefs compelled her to fight for continued care for her daughter. Through the years, Winkfield said she was buoyed by her daughter showing signs of life through toe wiggles and finger movements. The girl had also began menstruating.
"Jahi wasn't brain dead or any kind of dead," Winkfield said. "She was a girl with a brain injury and she deserved to be cared for like any other child who had a brain injury."
But attorney Dick Carroll, who represents USCF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland, said McMath was brain dead. He noted that determination came from two separate pediatric neurologists at the hospital in December 2013 and again by an independent Stanford pediatric neurologist appoint by the court.
He said to his knowledge the state of New Jersey also considered the girl brain dead, but an exemption based on religious beliefs allowed for the family to continue care for the girl. Carroll said McMath’s death certificate from New Jersey is a result of her heart stopping.
Winkfield said the journey was unimaginably difficult, but also marked by joyful times, such as when the mother brushed her daughter's hair, painted her nails and told her what was on television.
“I’m really going to miss her. I miss her already. I gave up everything for Jahi and I have no regrets, not one. My only regret is having her have her tonsils out in California.”
Winkfield went on to describe her last day with her daughter.
“She looked kind of sick to me,’’ Winkfield said. “I said, ‘Jahi, if you are tired, you have my permission, you can go.' I guess she just wanted to make sure I was going to be alright.”
Now, Winkfield, who quit her job at Home Depot, sold her home in Oakland and drained her savings account to help pay for McMath’s care, said she wants to get her life back on track before she moves toward advocating for others in similar medical situations.
“I hope the fight that I put up opened a door to help other people,’’ Winkfield said, adding that she did it all for her daughter. “That little black girl from Oakland made history and I’m so proud of her.”