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Little Hope for Oakland Girl Left Brain Dead After Tonsillectomy

On Dec. 9, a 13-year-old girl who had been suffering from sleep apnea was taken to Children’s Hospital Oakland for a routine surgery to remove her tonsils, adenoids and uvula. Although complications from this common childhood surgery are rare, they can be extremely serious. The girl began bleeding heavily and was kept overnight, but the medical team was unable to prevent a massive hemorrhage in her brain. She went into cardiac arrest and was declared brain dead on Dec. 12.

Her mother and family believe she is alive as long as her heart continues to beat. Yet even in the face of a potential malpractice claim, Children’s and the medical team offered little comfort to the grieving family. They adamantly insisted that the legal definition of the end of human life is brain death and urged the girl be removed from her ventilator.

According to the girl’s uncle, when the mother refused to do so, hospital staff told her they didn’t need her permission, as the girl was legally dead. The family was forced to obtain a court order to keep her on the ventilator.

The dispute has made national news as caring people try to come to terms with the tragedy itself and with what rights parents should have when an injury to a child is so seemingly hopeless.

It took until Jan. 5, but the girl’s family succeeded in having her moved to a different facility that shares the family’s beliefs. She has now had procedures to help with breathing and nutrition. The family is waiting now, either for a miracle or for her heart to stop beating. “We couldn’t accept them pulling the plug on her early,” the uncle said.

Sadly, doctors believe that the new treatment is futile, and courts so far have agreed the girl is technically dead. A death certificate has been issued, dated Dec. 12. The family’s lawyer admits that the girl has deteriorated substantially since she was moved to the new facility.

Whatever the final outcome for this family, legal and ethical questions remain. When parents and doctors disagree whether a child is catastrophic injured or factually dead, who has the right to decide?

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