A thoughtful interview around the issues involved with the tonsillectomy that went wrong for Jahi McMath and her family’s wishes to keep her on life support despite her doctors declaring her brain dead. Make sure you also read Crouch’s accompanying piece, Lost in the Valley of Death.
The problem, of course, is that our moral and ethical thinking have not caught up with technology’s ability to keep our biological processes functioning. But what is life? What is living? Being a Christian minister who had to make end-of-life decisions around my mother five years ago, I have a different perspective about using extraordinary means of life support than the one attributed to Christians in this piece. I was (and am) mindful of what the old preacher said: For everything there is a season. A time to be born and a time to die (see Ecclesiastes 3.1-8, especially verse 2). Death is a sad part of life, the result of God’s curse on our sin and the evil it unleashed, and it has never been revoked (Genesis 3.17-19). So our mortal body must die.
But Christians should not fear death because we have been healed and reconnected to our Life Source (God) by the blood of the Lamb shed for us and have a glorious future awaiting us when the new creation comes in full. Therefore, the matrix that guided my decision-making about what kind of measures the docs took for my mother dealt with quality of living, both as she would have defined it and as Scripture helped me to define it. Consequently, I was not interested in the docs taking extraordinary measures to keep my mom’s body going when it was terribly clear that she was gone. I was able to commend her into God’s hands in great sorrow but also in great hope, because I believe this God is the God who gives life to the dead and calls into existence things that are not (Romans 4.17). Given what I was observing in that hospital room versus where I knew my mother would be (with the Lord who loved and claimed her for all eternity), the choice was not all that difficult. Of course, I miss her terribly to this day. But this decision wasn’t about me. It was about what was best for my mother who was a devout Christian.
Your mileage on this may vary, but please do read the two pieces and have a conversation around them with your family and loved ones.
Medicine would do well to recover a sense of humility in the face of mystery. I think we should stop using the naturalistic, reductionistic language we tend to use. Honestly, medicine doesn’t know what “dead” is. If you can’t say what dead is, then you don’t know when someone is dead. If the hospital says we know what death is, that’s when a brain is dead—well, how do you know that?
Very probably these doctors did what doctors are trained to do. They tend to think their goal is to provide information. They do one test, then another test, then they check for a rise in CO2 when you turn off the ventilator, and so forth. And they keep getting more information which is supposed to demonstrate a biological fact. But the family is not living in the world of biology, the family is living in a world of spiritual powers.
Instead we need to talk in terms of ends, goals, and purposes. If you sit down with the family and you say, “What are you hoping for, what’s your goal, what are we trying to achieve here?” that can lead to a very different conversation. You may disagree about the likelihood of achieving the goal, but at least you’ve talked not in terms of so-called facts that we actually are very unsure of—like the question where does life begin and end—but in terms of purpose. At least you’re talking about something meaningful rather than something that, frankly, medicine, by its own standards for what counts as knowledge, doesn’t know.