For some, birthdays are important. But for Amber Rose Isaac and partner Bruce McIntyre, Aug. 11, 2019, was just as special of a day for them. That’s the day the couple decided to have a baby.
The two had been friends for about a decade, McIntyre said, but only started dating in 2018, after she graduated college and he moved to the Bronx full-time after shuttling between North Carolina and New York while Amber worked her way up through Riverdale/Kingsbridge Academy. Until the couple moved in together, Isaac had spent most of her life living with her family in the northwest Bronx.
“Amber was just somebody that was so focused on her career and focused on school,” McIntyre said. “I actually tried to get with her like six years ago, and she turned me down.”
Once she had her bachelor’s degree in hand, though, things looked up for McIntyre.
“As soon as I moved back to New York, me and Amber picked it back up, and rekindled,” he said. We “started a relationship and then built from there.”
And then, this past August, the two were in Brooklyn on one of their regular date nights, and stopped into a bookstore.
“She was looking at this hip-hop baby book and telling he how she can’t leave without this book,” McIntyre said. “She said, ‘You know, it’s about time for us to have a baby,’ and she gave me this look.”
By October Isaac was pregnant, and due at the end of May.
But Isaac never made it to her due date. She died April 21 at Montefiore Medical Center in Norwood after delivering son Elias via Cesarean section.
It’s a death McIntyre believes could have been prevented. Although he’s not a doctor or health official, he believes it’s part of a larger trend of Black women in New York City — and across the country — dying in childbirth at much higher rates than women of any other race.
New York ranked 30th in the country in maternal mortality rates, according to a March 2019 report published by the state. Black women were about three times as likely to die than white women, with more than 51 deaths per 100,000 live births, compared to nearly 16 deaths among white mothers.
Chivona Newsome, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter of Greater New York — and who had been a candidate for the congressional seat being vacated by U.S. Rep. Jose E. Serrano — said disparities in health care between people of color and their white counterparts were clear to her starting when she was a teenager.
“This is the reason I decided to run for Congress,” she said. “I realized that nothing happens for Black people, or any other marginalized group of people, or any other marginalized group of people, unless we have legislation.”
Isaac’s platelet counts started dropping in February, McIntyre said. By March, Montefiore had swapped most of her care to telehealth. McIntyre added doctors asked the couple to buy a blood pressure cuff and iron pills so that Isaac’s vitals could be monitored from home.
On April 10, the couple went to get Isaac’s blood drawn. They waited for results all week, McIntyre said, and doctors were not returning emails and phone calls. Eventually, Isaac’s mother — a longtime Montefiore employee — intervened.
“I started noticing that her fatigue was getting worse,” McIntyre said. “Being in her third trimester, we would try to walk every morning to make labor a bit easier. We went from walking a half a mile to barely being able to walk half a block. It was hard for her to breathe.”
On April 16, Montefiore called Isaac, asking her to come in for more blood work.
The visit was frustrating, McIntyre said. Isaac was texting him that doctors didn’t have results from an appointment the week before, saying their system automatically “cleared out.” They ended up sending Isaac home and asking her to come back later, when she finally got her blood drawn.
Early the next morning, the couple got a call asking for Isaac to come into the hospital right away so doctors could treat a low platelet condition they discovered from her blood work.
“She was so scared,” McIntyre said. “She didn’t want to go. She really didn’t want to go.”
That day, Isaac wrote on Twitter she “can’t wait to write a tell-all about my experience during my last two trimesters dealing with incompetent doctors at Montefiore,” without elaborating on what she felt medical professionals there were failing to do.
On April 20, she asked McIntyre to pack a bag and come stay with her at the hospital. She also sent him information about her diagnosis: HELLP syndrome, a form of the high blood pressure disorder pre-eclampsia.
Doctors decided to induce labor a month early.
“I was trying to put her at ease because she was scared,” McIntyre said. “I was telling her, ‘You know, we’re ready for this. This is going to change our lives.’”
Two hours after she was brought back for surgery, doctors told McIntyre that Amber had died.
“Any maternal death is a tragedy,” a Montefiore spokesman said, in a statement. “Our hearts go out to Ms. Isaac’s family, especially to her mother, our longtime colleague.”
Some 94 percent of the hospital’s deliveries are minority mothers, the spoken added, and Montefiore’s maternal mortality rate is 0.01 percent — lower than averages in both New York City and nationwide.
But HELLP can really complicate a pregnancy, said Valerie Holloway, managing director for the Preeclampsia Foundation, while not commenting on Isaac’s specific case.
“With HELLP syndrome, when you’ve got those platelets, that’s not something that would be managed with telehealth,” she said. “That would be something you would go to the hospital for.”
Holloway added that while the organization supports telehealth — especially during the coronavirus pandemic — virtual appointments could miss crucial signs, including weight and blood pressure, unless doctors were specifically seeking them out.
Montefiore had not secured the blood Isaac would need for a transfusion during or after the birth, McIntyre claimed.
“This should have never happened,” he said. “This should have never happened … knowing that it was 100 percent preventable, it just doesn’t sit right with me.
“She never got to meet her son.”
The family started online crowdfunding, initially aiming to raise about $8,000 to pay for Isaac’s burial. By the end of May, however, they already raised nearly $50,000.
On May 1, McIntyre updated the page.
“Thank you for all the support,” he wrote. “Let’s fight the injustice we have been receiving for so long. At the rate America is going my son cannot survive in a world like that, let’s change it.”