Jahi McMath

My God, those cheeks—that sweet, bright smile stretched across that bubbling brown sugar pie face. Jahi McMath’s pictures, full of energy and girlpie goodness are all-at-once beautiful and heartbreaking—the sad last chapter of her young life, a brutal tale of surgery gone awry and seeming medical indifference. I want to hug her. And wrap her mother, Nailah Winkfield, into a warm embrace.

No mother should bury her child.

Not in this way.

Not in a hail of uncertainty and doubt, begging and fighting, court orders and press conferences and clandestine exchanges between emotionless hospital officials and coroners and people who promise miracles, even when miracles totter precariously on the impossible.

When I first read the story of Jahi’s horrific medical descent, I couldn’t believe the words splayed across my phone. A 13-year-old girl went into surgery at Children’s Hospital & Research Center Oakland to have her tonsils removed, afraid that she wouldn’t wake up from the routine procedure. She came out of the anesthesia asking for popsicles, but then started bleeding, first lightly, then profusely. According to her family’s legal petition, nurses met her mother’s queries about Jahi’s condition with blithe concern: they gave that baby paper towels and pitchers to keep Jahi’s bleeding from making a mess, but called doctors only after her grandmother, a nurse, demanded someone come tend to that child. Shortly after, Jahi went into cardiac arrest and then slipped into a coma.

The hospital declared Jahi brain-dead three days after her surgery, and three neurologists confirmed she’s unable to breathe on her own and has neither blood flow to her brain nor signs of electrical activity. But Jahi’s family has fought in the courts to keep her on life-support, insisting that Jahi still has a chance to wake up in the land of the living and removing her from a ventilator “violates her Freedom of Religion and Privacy Rights.”

For this belief, Jahi’s family has been dragged through the proverbial dirt. The hospital, insisting Jahi died on Dec. 12 when her brain stopped working, disrespectfully refer to her as “the corpse” and “the body.” Nailah Winkfield has been called stubborn and stupid and accused of being a money-grubbing shyster, using her daughter’s plight to collect cash. Words of comfort are few and far between.

No one cries for little brown girls and their mamas.

But we do.

Because we know that they are made of skin and bone and sinew and human heart, the kind that loves and holds hope when there is none. Especially so.

We know, too—intimately—the feeling that comes when something isn’t quite right. When respect is held at a reserve and callousness crowds out compassion. It’s that feeling we get when we’re being followed around the store, or when we’re led to the table in the back of the restaurant, or when the nurse and doctor take their sweet time moseying to your room then rush through your nervous questions with clipped answers and quick exits.

Not saying the latter happened to Jahi’s family, but would you believe anything Children’s Hospital of Oakland had to say if your baby bled out and had a heart attack before doctors bothered to see what was wrong with her? Would you maybe think the hospital was trying to cover up medical negligence? Would you maybe have a little contempt if hospital attorneys and publicists were on TV (and Twitter!), talking greasy about your kid, even as you deal with the shock of your baby laying on a table, hooked up to life support machines after a routine tonsillectomy?

Jahi is the child of Nailah Winkfield, a praying mother who has the right to make life-and-death decisions concerning her child. Nailah also deserves the space to recover from the shock, hysteria, hype and ugly of all that has occurred over the past month so that she can sit next to her baby, kiss those cheeks, rub her hands, then think with her brain and with her heart and make peace with herself and her daughter and her God.

While she does these things, we at MyBrownBaby offer our grace and compassion to Jahi and to her mother.

She deserves nothing less.

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Denene Millner

Mom. NY Times bestselling author. Pop culture ninja. Unapologetic lover of shoes, bacon and babies. Nice with the verbs. Founder of the top black parenting website, MyBrownBaby.


  1. This was so Heartfelt, thank you. God Bless Jahi and her strong, diligent family.

  2. I definitely think that when it comes Blacks there is no compassion, especially in cases like this one. It’s been heartbreaking to see how cold, rude and down disrespectful people are being in their comments to Jahi’s family. I saw people posting on a news station feed that her mother should their religion out of the equation and take her off life support so they can free up Jahi’s bed for somebody that needs it. Seriously?!! Like hello, the person who needs that bed is already in it.

    I think whether we would do the same thing that Nailah is doing for her daughter or not, we should at the very least have some sympathy for what she and her family have had to endure. Show some respect to a mother who has been put in a very difficult situation. At the end of the day, who are we to tell this woman to give up on her child or her faith?

  3. I so feel for this mom. Even though I don’t know if I would make the same decisions (and I hope I never have the opportunity), the way the hospital has treated this family is deplorable. I try not to read comments on the internet because of how vile most commenters are, and I just can’t imagine talking trash about a family who has lost a child in a fairly routine surgery. My heart goes out to that family.

  4. Although money will never replace that beautiful child, it is probably the ONLY pain the hospital will feel. I know first hand how nonchalant and rude hospital medical personnel can be (short-staffed be darned, it’s just how they are). I would go as far to say that this is a case of attempted murder. And for those organ donor junkies, ever think about the fact that the very people who wouldn’t give someone who looks like Jahi the time of day, or a fair chance at a job, or a follow-free shopping experience, are the ones who are lining up for one of her organs. BTW, I fully support organ donations, and am a card-carrying donor should anything happen to me. But what happened to this child is foul.

  5. I recently found your blog, and I must say I am in love. This was so beautifully written and so very true. I 100% agree that the lack of compassion for this family – exhibited first by the hospital and then by the media – is appalling. Had they been treated with the respect and the compassion they deserve maybe the family could have come to terms with Jahi’s passing in a more timely manner. Instead the hate-filled ridicule has pushed them into a corner as they fight desperately to defend their actions in the media’s spotlight. I pray that they take the time they need to come to terms with the passing of their beloved child.

  6. Denene,
    I’m so glad you wrote this post. This story has torn my hear to shreds. While this sweet, sweet girl will never recover, we cannot judge this mother. If it were my child, I don’t know what I would do. She deserves the time to grieve and come to terms on her own timeline. It is an unnatural thing for a parent to bury a child and I cannot fathom her grief. Like Allyssa, I’ve had to stop reading the comments because I get so upset. I say a special prayer for Jahi’s family that they are able to say their goodbyes in the fashion they believe is best.

  7. Tara N. Phoenix

    This is by far the best and most compassionate piece written about Jahi and her family. I try to keep up with what is going on since her story came up. My heart and prayers go out to her mother. This is something no parent should have to deal with and especially not in the public eye. I try not to read the comments because they infuriate me. The disdain and downright nastiness displayed towards our chocolate babies makes my pressure rise. I hate to pull the race card, but if it had been Becky Sue’s daughter, trust me if it would have been different. I will continue to keepup Jahi and Nailah in my prayers.

  8. Thank you so much. I’ve tried to find the words to express my outrage but could never articulate them the way you have. Only a brown mother can. Excellent article.

  9. When you are a Brown mom and daughter in this (And other situations of this ilk in America) you have no bona-fides or privileges to draw on. Your grief and misery is seen as “Over the top” and rife with gamey hysterics and an arrogance of thinking your life has meaning and value. You internally know that in this system, it doesn’t. It never did, it is marginal and desultory to the dominant paradigm. You get a, “Oops..our bad, sorry we killed your black child, but we didn’t much, it’s not like we killed a real child.” I mean ma’am come on!!?? really-big freaking deal here. Can we get back to tending lives that have economic value, purpose, lightness and hope in our eyes.” That’s the message brown bodies get. Like Trayvon, he was so buck wild, despite being followed and stared at by that freak-creep Zimmerman.That he just went pscho and attacked the man for no rational reason. Cause if your ensconced in black skin that stuff doesn’t live your damn body. You still operate like a baboon or ape and just grunt and shuffle through this life like a buffalo or a gorilla. Feed-drink tea, text, attack Hispanic man who looks threatening, quaff some skittles-bang, bang-DIE, AAHH life-ain’t it grand in these United States-we marginal folks have it sweet-like!

  10. Thank you for this. No words…

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