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OAKLAND — The mother of an Oakland teen who was declared brain dead almost five years ago but kept breathing through machines encouraged about 200 mourners at her daughter’s funeral Friday to always fight for a loved one’s life.
“Stop pulling the plug on your people,” Nailah Winkfield told the gathering in a composed voice. “Stop letting those doctors tell you that there is no hope.”
In the eyes of her family and the state of New Jersey, Jahi died on June 22 at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick, where she had undergone multiple surgeries since April. New Jersey’s death certificate listed the preliminary cause of death as bleeding.
Winkfield, who had rejected the state of California’s conclusion that her daughter was dead, quit her job, sold her house and left her other children and family behind in 2013 to take Jahi to New Jersey. The 13-year-old was declared brain dead by UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland doctors following complications from a nose and throat operation. She had been taken there to get her tonsils removed.
“I welcome you not to a funeral but to a home-going,” Bishop Bob Jackson, pastor of the Acts Full Gospel Church in Oakland, said Friday.
Winkfield walked into the church accompanied by her husband, Martin Winkfield, on one arm and her attorney Christopher Dolan on the other. Dressed in purple, Jahi’s favorite color, Winkfield began to waver when she arrived at the front of the church where her daughter’s closed purple casket lay, with a purple-and-white flower wreath on top. She had to be held up by the two men at her side, crying as the grief washed over her, before sitting down.
After telling those congregated to never give up hope, she addressed Jahi directly. “One last thing I want to say to Jahi, I am so proud of you. Because you did not let that hospital take you out, you left on your own,” she said.
Winkfield recalled looking at Jahi last month and, for the first time in more than four years, feeling like she looked sick.
“I told her, ‘I just want you to know, don’t stay here for me. If you want to go, you can go,’ ” Winkfield said.
Jahi died a couple hours later.
The family’s attorney, who took on the case at the outset, also spoke. “There’s no script for Jahi McMath,” he said.
Dolan talked about an early meeting at the children’s hospital back in December 2013 when Winkfield told doctors she didn’t believe her child was dead.
“You all just doctors, wearing your white coats,” Dolan recalled her saying. “But I am her mama.”
In Jahi’s obituary, read out loud at the services by Wanda Johnson — the mother of Oscar Grant, who was fatally shot by a BART police officer several years ago — Jahi’s family described her as so soft-spoken that people couldn’t hear her the first time she spoke.
“That girl spoke louder than anyone else in this whole world,” Dolan said.
“When you walked into that room, there was a sense that there was a spirit, a person, a living human being,” he continued.
“And they tried to take away her dignity. And her mom said, ‘Not on my call. You will not take away this girl’s dignity,’ ” he said.
Johnson also spoke, telling the family to keep their faith in God and “press on” as they did for the last four and a half years.
“She was never dead,” Jahi’s grandmother, Sandra Chatman, said at Mount Eden Cemetery in Hayward following the funeral service. “I feel that she still is with us … and one way is by people who have not spoken to each other in so long are speaking. People who haven’t seen each other in 10 years have come together.”
Omari Sealey, Jahi’s uncle, said the teen was full of love and laughter.
“She showed that she wanted to live, and we did everything we could to make that happen,” he said at the cemetery.
Jahi’s funeral was filled with both sorrow and happiness, attended by family, friends and even nurses and doctors. Beside Jahi’s purple casket were flower displays: one in purple and white spelled out her name, another was sent by teachers and staff from Jahi’s charter school, EC Reems.
A photo slideshow presentation showed Jahi from an infant through childhood, posing and smiling in her school uniform with friends. More recent photos showed her mother painting her nails festive colors for holidays, or braiding her hair, as Jahi lay in a bed. Several showed Winkfield kissing her daughter, another showed off the tattoo she got on her arm in her daughter’s likeness.
People sobbed during parts of the service, such as when Tammora McClarty sang “Take Me to the King” or when one of Jahi’s nurses compared her to a beautiful, resilient butterfly.
Jahi’s story inspired family members around the world to reject brain death diagnosis given to their loved ones, an act that became known as the “Jahi McMath effect.”
The public debate about whether Jahi was dead or alive extended into the medical field. Noted neurologists said the three brain-death tests Jahi underwent, including one from an independent doctor, clearly showed she had lost all brain function and her condition was irreversible.
Skeptics included Dr. Alan Shewmon, professor emeritus of pediatrics and neurology at the University of California, Los Angeles. He reviewed 49 videos of the teen moving specific fingers on command and concluded she did not fit the criteria for brain death.
Funeral services were followed by a burial at the Mount Eden Cemetery in Hayward.
David DeBolt contributed to this story.