Behind the scenes of fight over Jahi McMath’s life

This is the second installment of my column I am calling “Life with Jahi.”

This past week has been a marathon of inches. Time grinds by slowly, and I research and write as the night becomes the day. There is no class in law school on how to fight Big Medicine after it causes a 13-year-old girl’s health status to change from patient to body and then wants to pull the plug.

Being on the inside of this fight between those who want to get Jahi McMath treated as a living being, and those who refer to her as “the deceased,” is frighteningly eye-opening as to how fragile our fundamental rights are over our health care decisions.

As I write this, it is 2:25 a.m. New Year’s Day. For the past four hours, I have been on the phone with treatment facilities trying to arrange the careful choreography of moving Jahi out of Children’s Hospital Oakland. Hospital PR man Sam Singer, a self-declared “fixer,” had previously said if we got a physician to do the tracheotomy, we could do it at Children’s. Then he changed that, saying no way. We lost a day on that false promise. Then it was New Year’s Eve, and the decision-makers weren’t in. The stakes were high, as at about 9 p.m. New Year’s Eve, Jahi’s blood pressure and heart rate dropped precipitously. Immediately, I got the call and could hear the family seeking to rouse Jahi in the background. Her vitals stabilized, but we were all racked with fear.

This past week, there have been two deadlines where Jahi could have died as the result of complications from her tonsillectomy. The only thing that saved her was a piece of paper signed by a judge who took the time to hear the case, read the law and make a just decision. On Monday, there was a deadline at 5 p.m. when Children’s was going to be permitted to pull the plug on Jahi.

At 2:30 p.m., we contacted Judge Evelio Grillo in the Alameda County Superior Court to have an emergency hearing, which he set for 3 p.m. Yet at 3, the counsel for the defense (a decent man doing his best for his client) and I were in federal court, where I was also trying to get a restraining order preventing removal of the ventilator. So around 3:30 p.m., we had a hearing over cellphones from the federal courthouse where Grillo, across town, granted a further retraining order — in essence, a stay of execution — through Tuesday. When I heard the ruling, my body shuddered with relief. Because at that same time, Nailah Winkfield, Jahi’s mother, sat at Children’s Hospital Oakland praying for time.

You see, Children’s had fortified itself to carry out its plan of execution. It had cleared out the family from the waiting room, tripled the security, barricaded the front doors and had its plan in place to come into Jahi’s room and turn off a switch that would stop the ventilator and, within a minute or two, Jahi’s heart. Nailah was sitting, praying, as if she were on death row. When I reached her and told her of the stay, I heard her sob, “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!” She said, “I love my daughter. She’s a good girl, she doesn’t deserve to die.”

Together we sat on that phone until she calmed down and she said, “I don’t know how to thank you.”

“You just did,” I replied. “Now go tell our girl not to give up, we’re not giving up on her.” It was sobering to know how close we came.

Christopher B. Dolan is owner of the Dolan Law Firm. Email questions to

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