On life support at CHOP for nearly three weeks, 'brain dead' boy in legal, medical limbo

For nearly three weeks, Rumpa Banerjee has maintained a bedside vigil over her gravely ill son, Areen Chakrabarti, at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, which seeks to remove him from life support.

Five times, Rumpa Banerjee has called New Jersey hospitals to see if they would admit her 14-year-old son.

Five times, hospitals have told the Burlington County woman that first they need to speak to officials at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, where her son is on life support nearly three weeks after suffering severe brain injury in a fire.

And then, nothing.

CHOP physicians have declared Areen Chakrabarti “brain dead” and seek to remove him from life support against his mother’s wishes, according to the family’s attorney, Christopher Bagnato. She has faith that more can be done.

“It shouldn’t be their choice,” Banerjee said Thursday, referring to the hospital’s physicians. “It is my son. It’s my choice.”

The hospital has declined to comment.

Banerjee seeks to move Areen to a hospital in New Jersey in part because the state’s law regarding brain death would, at least for now, prevent a hospital from declaring him to be legally dead — a necessary step before he can be removed from life support, Bagnato said.

That strategy does have a legal basis, said Thaddeus Pope, a professor at Mitchell Hamline School of Law in St. Paul, Minn. In most states, a person can be declared legally dead if either heart or brain function has completely and irreversibly ceased, he said.

But years ago, at the prompting of the state’s large Orthodox Jewish community, New Jersey lawmakers enacted a special religious exemption. If the family’s faith dictates that a patient is alive so long as the cardiovascular system is functioning, then a physician cannot declare the person dead based on brain death alone, said Pope, director of Mitchell Hamline’s Health Law Institute.

“There’s at least a possibility that he could be dead in Pennsylvania, but if you cross the Delaware River, he would not be dead in New Jersey,” Pope said.

The New Jersey law applies to Areen because his mother subscribes to the Hindu faith, her attorneys said. Pope said that could be true, though he cautioned that the court may need to determine whether the tenets of her faith would apply legally to her son, a minor.

In the meantime, Banerjee and her sister, Tumpa, have maintained a near-constant vigil at the boy’s bedside, where he is connected to a ventilator and intravenous fluids. She said the boy’s systolic blood pressure rises as high as 160 when she does not speak for an extended period of time, then falls to the more normal level of 130 when she resumes speaking.

“He is trying to respond,” she said.

As she recounted her tale of heartache, Banerjee permitted herself a brief smile as she described the things that bring her son joy: Chinese food, Mario Brothers video games, and traveling to Disney World.

Areen is on the autism spectrum, and in the confusion when their Bordentown home caught fire April 14, he ran upstairs rather than outside, and suffered severe brain damage from smoke inhalation.

Common Pleas Court Judge Abbe Fletman ruled last week that CHOP must keep the boy on life support at least until a hearing can take place in Orphans’ Court — an event now scheduled for Wednesday.

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Camera icon COURTESY RUMPA BANERJEE
Areen Chakrabarti celebrating his 14th birthday with his mother, Rumpa. He was declared brain dead at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, which seeks to remove him from life support.

In the meantime, Banerjee continues her quest for another hospital. She is grateful to the nurses at CHOP, whom she said were “very compassionate.”

But she cannot fathom the stance of the institution as a whole.

“It is like they are saying, ‘We are not treating him as a human being. We are treating him as a number.'” she said.