Taquisha McKitty, the woman at the heart of a legal battle over the legitimacy of brain death in Ontario, died on Monday with her brother by her side.
Her heart stopped beating at about 2 a.m. Members of the family had kept a constant vigil with Ms. McKitty since she entered the hospital more than a year ago. Her father, Stanley Stewart, had just left.
“They didn’t pull the plug on her," Mr. Stewart told The Globe and Mail on Monday afternoon. “She died naturally, which is what we ultimately wanted if that’s what was going to be the case.” As soon as he heard that Ms. McKitty’s condition had deteriorated at around 1:45 a.m., he turned back to Brampton Civic Hospital, but his daughter died before he got there.
Ms. McKitty had been found unconscious on a sidewalk in September, 2017. The 27-year-old had overdosed on a cocktail of street drugs, and first responders could not find a pulse. Physicians got Ms. McKitty breathing again on a ventilator, but swelling in her brain continued to cut off oxygen and inflict damage.
She was declared brain dead six days later. Ontario leaves the definition of death up to doctors, who consider patients to be brain dead when they no longer have the capacity for consciousness and are unable to breathe without help.
But her family fought the declaration, saying that so long as her heart was beating – even with medical assistance – they believed she was alive.
Their refusal to discontinue life support kicked off a protracted, expensive and potentially precedent-setting fight in Ontario’s top courts. The question of what constitutes death, and who decides when that line has been crossed, have no clear legislative answers across most of Canada. Science and faith clash on the idea, as some Muslims, Orthodox Jews and Christians, such as Ms. McKitty’s family, believe brain death does not align with their religious definition of death. Physicians were anxious that, if the family was successful at any level and more consideration was given to families’ beliefs, public trust in doctors could be eroded.
Ms. McKitty’s story is among cases worldwide that have challenged whether physicians or families should say when death has occurred, and whether brain death is non-negotiable. Mr. Stewart believes the court challenge is what his daughter would have done if the tables were turned. “Taquisha always believed in right and wrong," he said. “I know if she was alive, and it was another family member, and things unfolded the way they did with her, she would be alongside of us fighting that fight for the other person.”
Taquisha Deseree McKitty was born in 1990 to Mr. Stewart and Alyson McKitty. “She was just a loving, caring person,” Mr. Stewart said. She was “Keesha” to the family – a bright student in French-immersion since kindergarten who played soccer, did gymnastics and taekwondo. She later found a haven in techno music, chasing the pulsing beats to music festivals in Toronto. At 17, she gave birth to a girl named Khia, cutting her high-school studies short to be a mother. She had returned to school, completing one year of a cosmetics program at Humber College, but struggled with drug use, especially in the year before her overdose. She had discussed possible options for help with her father.
While taking their case through the courts, Ms. McKitty’s family has been on a constant rotation of visits to the Brampton hospital. Last week, at Christmas, the family gathered for their usual holiday traditions. Mr. Stewart slipped away after dinner, though, to spend a few hours with his daughter. A glitter-splotched note from Ms. McKitty’s daughter adorned the sterile hospital wall: “I love you mommy wake up!”
The family was waiting for a verdict from the Ontario Court of Appeal, to which they made their case earlier in December, after a Superior Court justice ruled against keeping Ms. McKitty on life support in June. Lawyer Hugh Scher says the family is still hoping for a ruling to provide clarity and guidance to other families and hospitals across the province.
“This courageous lady and her family have pursued a tireless fight for respect for religious liberty and equality and respect for her devout Christian beliefs,” he said.
No funeral plans are finalized yet, but the family is hoping to hold a simple ceremony next week. “We don’t want to keep her up any longer than she needs to be," Mr. Stewart said. “She’s been going through a lot, for a long period of time, and we just kind of want to put her to rest.”