LOUISVILLE, Ky. — A brain-dead baby was taken off life support hours after a judge decided his mother cannot force a hospital to continue treating a legally dead child.
His heartbeat and breathing, maintained by machines for nearly three weeks, soon ceased Tuesday night.
The 2-month-old baby, Issac Lopez, was declared brain dead July 2, days after police allege his father beat his head into the bathtub. Brain death, meaning no functioning brain cells remain, is medically and legally the same as death by cardiac arrest.
But the child's mother, Iveth Yaneth Garcia-Menchaca, filed suit, asking a judge to forbid Kosair Children's Hospital here from removing the ventilator and feeding tube. She argued that only a child's parents, not the hospital, have the right to make decisions about his medical treatment.
Jefferson County Circuit Judge Judith McDonald-Burkman sided with the hospital Tuesday, finding that the boy is legally dead, and no parental right survives.
"There are no treatment decisions for Issac's parents or anyone else to make," the judge wrote. "His condition is irreversible. That will never change."
A committee at Harvard Medical School concluded in 1968 that brain death signals the end of a life, as final as death by cardiac arrest. That finding was reiterated in 1981 by the President's Commission for the Study of Ethical Problems in Medicine and Biomedical and Behavioral Research and has been accepted universally, in medicine and in law.
Kentucky law recognizes two definitions of death, the judge wrote. The first is "irreversible cessation of spontaneous respiration and circulation." The second is "total and irreversible cessation of all brain function, including the brain stem and that such determination is made by at least two licensed physicians."
Four doctors at Kosair concluded through a series of neurological tests that every part of Issac's brain had shut down: Both the upper brain, which controls thought and voluntary movement, and the brain stem, the stalk of neural tissue that connects the spinal cord to the brain and controls involuntary actions like breathing and reflex.
Issac did not respond to pain. He did not gag or cough or blink when provoked. He did not wheeze for breath when carbon dioxide levels increased in his blood, as any human with even a partially functional brain stem would do.
"The Kentucky Legislature has made a policy decision, based on scientific medical evidence, of when life ends," McDonald-Burkman wrote in her decision. "There is no authority to suggest the parent of a legally dead child can override the Legislature's definition of death."
But the child's mother firmly believes her baby was still alive, her lawyer, Leslie Bates, said Tuesday.
"She is devastated, as you can well imagine," Bates said. "She's trying to process what it means."
She understands that Issac was badly injured, the lawyer said. But she denies he was deceased.
The baby's doctor testified at a hearing this month that the baby died July 2, and the around-the-clock treatment he received in the three weeks since merely maintained the appearance of life: breath, warm skin, a beating heart.
"Since the day he was declared dead, we have basically been holding his body in continued existence, for lack of a better term, using pretty much every means at our disposal to keep air going into his lungs, to keep the blood circulating," Dr. Aaron Calhoun told a judge this week. "But he is dead. And we are not sustaining life. We are only sustaining the appearance of life in a body that has passed away."
The hospital released a statement after the order was handed down.
"We acknowledge the court's ruling, but no one has prevailed in this matter," spokesman Thomas Johnson wrote. "The death of an innocent child under any circumstances is a tragedy. We can now give Issac the dignity he deserves at the end of his young life by allowing his body to pass naturally."
The hospital removed the ventilator and feeding tube Tuesday night, several hours after the judge's ruling, Johnson said.
Now that the civil matters are resolved, the baby's father, Juan Alejandro Lopez Rosales, is expected to be charged in the child's death.
Issac, born May 1, was admitted June 29 to Kosair Children's Hospital with a broken skull, rib fractures, respiratory failure, cardiac arrest and blood and fluid pooling around his brain, according to Jefferson County court filings.
His father at first denied knowing how the boy was injured, according to court records. Then he told police he hit the baby's head on a wall and on the bathtub several days earlier. He said he considered seeking medical treatment earlier but "abandoned efforts because the facilities asked too many questions or they were too far away."