OAKLAND — A family still outraged by a routine surgery that left a 13-year-old girl brain dead now says hospital officials have refused to release the girl's medical records to them — a charge hospital officials dispute — and a consumer advocacy group is calling for criminal and medical investigations to assess fault in the girl's death.
Jahi McMath remains on life support at Children's Hospital Oakland nearly a week after doctors declared her brain dead; she had tonsil surgery on Dec. 9 to help her with sleep apnea but began bleeding and experienced cardiac arrest later that night. Doctors declared her brain dead on Dec. 12.
Her family held a vigil Wednesday night, meeting with friends and supporters at a church in Oakland, while people from around the world pledged on social media to pray for Jahi.
Amid the contentiousness to be expected after a seemingly routine surgery ends in tragedy, her family has said that hospital officials have been insensitive to their grief, pressuring them to agree to have the girl taken off life support.
Christopher Dolan, the family's attorney, said Wednesday that Jahi's mother, Nailah Winkfield, had asked the hospital for her child's records. A clerk initially agreed to give her the records, but a senior hospital staff member intervened, saying the records were "not final" and that "the doctors needed an opportunity to review their records to see if there were any 'errors' or any additional information that needed to be provided," Dolan said in an email Wednesday.
The family filed a formal request for the records Tuesday, but as of Wednesday, they had not been produced, Dolan said.
The hospital's chief of pediatrics, David Durand, said in an emailed statement that "Jahi's family has the same access to our medical records as the family of any patient at Children's. As a matter of policy, we do not release the entire medical record while the patient is in the hospital, since it is a document in continuous use. All families have the right to review the record while the patient is in the hospital, and have access to the entire record after the hospitalization has ended."
Santa Monica-based Consumer Watchdog condemned the withholding of the records Wednesday and called for California Attorney General Kamala Harris, Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O'Malley and California Medical Board President Sharon Levine to launch investigations into the girl's treatment.
"We need no further evidence than its refusal to share basic information with the family about their daughter's care to see that Children's Hospital can't impartially investigate its own possible negligence," said consumer advocate Carmen Balber.
Durand said in his statement that the hospital "promptly reported this matter to the California Department of Public Health, which is actively reviewing the matter in partnership with us." Durand further condemned what he called "unsubstantiated and inflammatory claims" from Consumer Watchdog, saying the group's statement was "replete with errors" that the hospital cannot address because of medical privacy laws.
Since taking on the case, Dolan said several lawyers have contacted him about their clients who "have suffered catastrophic outcomes at Children's Hospital Oakland and that they, too, ran into a brick wall when seeking to obtain medical records."
A statement on the Children's Hospital Oakland website says, "We can release your child's health information only when we receive proper written permission. You will need to submit written permission in the form of a release form or a letter to obtain private health information."
Most hospitals in the area say in policies posted online that they require a written consent form to be completed and signed before the hospital can release the documents. However, none mentions an altering of documentation or a delay due to an ongoing case.
Without the medical records to evaluate, Dolan said the family can't begin to evaluate if there was a doctor who was negligent. However, Dolan said, they believe "the care they received was unacceptable."
"They have complained that as Jahi was bleeding from her mouth and nose they were not given prompt assistance by a doctor and criticized the care she was given when she was directed to hold a cup under her mouth so she could bleed into it."
Death following a tonsillectomy is rare but the procedure itself has declined in popularity over the last 60 years.
The operation can end in death in amounts ranging from 1 in 10,000 to 1 in 35,000, with morbidity rates — meaning a patient who suffers diseases or illness related to the operation but survives — ranging from 1.5 percent to 14 percent.
Complications following a tonsillectomy are usually the result of postoperative bleeding, though other common complications include pain, nausea and vomiting, according to studies by several doctors in the last 20 years.
Staff writer Katie Nelson contributed to this report. Follow Kristin J. Bender at Twitter.com/kjbender.