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Brain-dead California girl ordered kept on ventilator for week longer

A photograph of 13-year-old Jahi McMath is seen on a necklace in Oakland, California December 24, 2013. REUTERS/Stephen Lam
A photograph of 13-year-old Jahi McMath is seen on a necklace in Oakland, California December 24, 2013. REUTERS/Stephen Lam

By Laila Kearney

OAKLAND, California (Reuters) - The family of a California girl who was declared brain dead after complications from a tonsillectomy won an 11th-hour court order on Monday requiring doctors to keep her connected to a breathing machine for at least another week.

Under the latest court order in the case, doctors at Children's Hospital and Research Center in Oakland are barred from taking 13-year-old Jahi McMath off a ventilator without her family's consent before 5 p.m. local time on January 7, relatives and hospital officials said.

The eight-day extension gives the girl's relatives, who refuse to accept that she is beyond recovery, more time to complete arrangements to have her transferred to an extended-care facility.

But Alameda County Superior Court Judge Evilio Grillo's decision to extend the previous deadline set in his own restraining order of last week was intended to allow time for appellate review of the case, hospital officials said.

"This is a tragedy that has been postponed for another week," hospital spokesman Sam Singer told reporters outside the hospital after family members announced Monday's ruling about an hour before Grillo's original deadline was due to lapse.

A person declared brain dead is considered legally and physiologically dead under California law, as is the case in many states, and the hospital's own statements about Jahi have referred to her as deceased.

Grillo acted as the family filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court on Monday asking a federal judge to intervene to keep Jahi connected to the machine that has kept her heart and lungs going for more than two weeks.

The lawsuit claimed the hospital's planned "removal of cardiopulmonary support over the objections" of the girl's mother, and against her religious principles, amounts to an infringement of religious freedom and privacy rights under the U.S. Constitution.

Grillo initially refused last week to extend his restraining order after two pediatric neurologists testified that Jahi had suffered an irreversible loss of all brain activity and was thus medically dead.

SPINAL REFLEX OR SIGNS OF HOPE?

Family members said they were seeking to have her moved to a licensed long-term treatment center in New York and had raised $20,000 in donations needed to pay for a cross-country airlift.

Jahi's grandmother Sandra Chatman, herself a registered nurse, told reporters outside the hospital Monday afternoon that the girl had started to move her legs and appeared to be responding to voices of loved ones around her.

The girl's uncle Omar Sealey also said Jahi was responding to her mother's voice and touch and that he had video to prove it. "We have a pediatrician who has seen Jahi who has sworn that she is not dead," Sealey told reporters.

Hospital spokeswoman Melinda Krigel said it was not uncommon for spontaneous twitching or other body movements caused by spinal reflexes to occur in recently deceased individuals.

The hospital has said it would not stand in the way of Jahi's being moved to another facility. But officials there also refused last week to perform additional procedures that might be required, such as placing a tracheotomy and gastric tubes in her body before a transfer.

As part of its request for federal court action on Monday, the family asked that the hospital be required to carry out those preparations. The hospital also has said it needs written assurances from a coroner that the transfer would be permitted.

Jahi was admitted to Children's Hospital on December 9 for surgery to remove her tonsils as a means of treating her sleep apnea. Shortly after the procedure, she began to bleed severely, suffered a heart attack and then brain swelling, according to the family's lawyer, Christopher Dolan.

Hospital officials declared her brain dead on December 12.

According to medical experts, Jahi's lungs and heart are only continuing to function because of air being forced in and out of her body by the ventilator, without which her breathing and heartbeat would cease. Unlike an individual in a coma or a vegetative state, Jahi lacks any brain activity whatsoever, rendering her unable to breathe on her own, doctors said.

Hospital officials have said the facility and state health officials are investigating how a routine operation led to Jahi's death and that they understand the family's anguish.

"We have the deepest sympathy for Jahi's mother who wishes her daughter was alive; but the ventilator cannot reverse the brain death that has occurred, and it would be wrong to give false hope that Jahi will ever come back to life," Dr. David Durand, the chief of pediatrics, said in a statement.

(Additional reporting by Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Steve Orlofsky and Ken Wills)

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