Jahi McMath Tragedy and Childhood Obesity

On January 4, 2014, in Sleep Apnea, by admin

Was Jahi McMath’s weight to blame? Or was it just a side effect of the real culprit, Pediatric Obstructive Sleep Apnea?

Jahi McMath and Childhood ObesityJahi McMath’s story is a tragic one. A girl goes in for what most consider a routine surgery, only to end up brain-dead with no hope for recovery. The conversation about McMath has polarized the nation. In those debates taking place on many sites, the question arises about her weight, and if that played a role in the complications which have ultimately ended this child’s life. The case of Jahi McMath has raised the ugly spectre of childhood obesity once again.

McMath’s family has been reportedly criticized about her weight and lifestyle. This caused the family to release a statement through their attorney defending McMath and themselves.

The pictures of McMath show a happy, smiling teenager, who also appears rather heavy for her age. This has led to the speculation by some that her weight contributed to pediatric obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), or to the cardiac arrest following the surgery. It is true that obesity in a leading reason for sleep apnea in adults; fat can deposit around the throat and neck, which can restrict airflow.

However, for children, sleep apnea can stem from far different circumstances resulting in varying consequences. OSA in children is related to several factors: race, Downs Syndrome, and weight, as well as issues like inflamed tonsils. McMath’s infected tonsils were a contributing cause of her OSA, hence the surgery. This isn’t to say McMath’s weight had nothing to do with her OSA, but her OSA needs to be factored into her weight. McMath may have fallen victim to a vicious cycle between two competing ailments, and this cycle cost her life.

Obstructive sleep apnea in children can be related to a condition known as hypothyroidism. Hypothyroidism can affect a person’s energy levels and ability to regulate weight. For people who suffer from hypothyroidism, the answer is not as simple as eating healthily and getting some exercise, because hypothyroidism reduces the basal metabolic rate (BMR), which can lead to weight gain. Furthermore, weight gain from hypothyroidism may not always due to the accumulation of excess fat, but retention of water and salt. Once someone has gained the weight, hypothyroidism can make it very hard to lose.

Simply looking at a picture of McMath and claiming her problems were all due to her weight is unfair, because a picture cannot give a full medical diagnosis or history. While childhood obesity may have been a part in the McMath tragedy, it cannot be determined as the definitive cause.

OSA creates many other complications in both adults and children, and any and all potentially played a role in McMath’s failed surgery and resulting brain death. Aside from the daytime sleepiness and moodiness, OSA causes a depletion in blood oxygen saturation, which can lead to high blood pressure, cardiac issues and stroke. There is no way to know if McMath was affected by these other issues prior to, or immediately following, her surgery.

Regardless of what caused McMatch to hemorrhage and ultimately fall victim to cardiac arrest, speculating the impact her weight had on the outcome of her surgery does no good. Childhood obesity is an issue in the United States, but to directly attribute obesity the McMath tragedy without knowing if it truly was a cause creates nothing more than a lot of unnecessary pain for a family already suffering the devastating loss of a child. No amount of speculation or assumption will bring Jahi McMath back.

Editorial by Heather Pilkinton


Mayo Clinic
National Institute of Health
WebMD Hypothyroidism
American Thyroid Association
Mercury News

Google Alert – sleep apnea

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