Amber Isaac was a little more than a month away from her delivery date, and thrilled about the prospect of finally meeting her first child, a baby boy named Elias. But one issue had her worried: in February, she learned her platelet count was low, a symptom of several conditions that could result in dangerous complications for pregnant women.
Throughout the month of March, Isaac tried to get an in-person visit at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, to no avail. Because of the coronavirus, all appointments were being done remotely.
She was finally admitted to the hospital in late April, where doctors had to do an emergency caesarean section weeks before she was scheduled to deliver her baby. She wouldn’t survive the procedure, dying alone in the delivery room.
Now, her family is raising the alarm about Isaac’s death, saying it could have been avoided.
“All of this was 100 percent preventable. All of it,” her partner, Bruce McIntyre III recently told The Guardian. “I feel like she would have got more attentive care if she was a white mother, to be completely honest with you.”
McIntyre summarized her care at Montefiore as rude, neglectful, and unprofessional. Isaac herself complained publicly about her care at the hospital just days before admitted, writing on Twitter: “Can’t wait to write a tell all about my experience during my last two trimesters dealing with the incompetent doctors at Montefiore.”
Upon being admitted, doctors discovered Isaac, a 26-year-old Afro-Latina, had developed HELLP syndrome, a pregnancy-related complication that is only fatal in a small number of cases. In most instances, the condition is spotted while birthing parents are receiving prenatal care, Dr. Joia Crear-Perry, founder and president of the National Birth Equity Collaborative, told The Guardian.
“It’s definitely not something that people in the United States generally die from,” Crear-Perry said. “If you are a person who has been receiving prenatal care and people are aware that you have something going on, it’s not a surprise, you’re able to manage it with treatment.”
Isaac’s death draws increased attention to the struggles black mothers face during their pregnancies. Before the pandemic, pregnant black women were dying at two to three times the rate of their white counterparts. With the safety protocols at hospitals forcing many parents to do their checkups remotely (through apps or videos), some expectant parents and maternal care advocates are concerned that more women like Isaac might fall through the cracks.
“We know she did all that she was supposed to do, right?” Crear-Perry said. “And she’s not the only one. That’s the story of the black maternal mortality issue across the United States.”
While disparities in maternal care are a nationwide trend, the Guardian notes that the gap is even wider in New York City. There, black women are eight times more likely to die from a pregnancy-related complication than white women, the outlet reported, citing a study conducted by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
The pandemic has made patient care more challenging, particularly in boroughs that have been hit particularly hard by the virus, like the Bronx (where Montefiore is located). Hospitals have become increasingly reliant on telehealth—typically, checkups done via video conference—but experts say the can’t substitute in-person appointments, especially for checks that require professional equipment, like taking a birthing parent’s blood pressure or checking a baby’s heartbeat.
The City’s Ese Olumhense, who first reported on Isaac’s death, wrote that Isaac’s family was sent a $2,000 hospital bill two weeks after she died.
“They have the nerve to send us a $2,000 bill after not saving her life,” McIntyre told the local nonprofit news outlet. “As if we were at fault for this.”
In a statement sent to The City, the hospital defended its maternal health record.
“Ninety-four percent of our deliveries are by minority mothers, and Montefiore’s maternal mortality rate of 0.01% is lower than both New York City and national averages,” read the statement. “Any maternal death is a tragedy. Our hearts go out to Ms. Isaac’s family, especially to her mother, our longtime colleague.”
While mourning his partner and raising their newborn son, McIntyre has started a black maternal health campaign, as well as a new foundation, “Save a Rose,” to honor Isaac’s memory and to help protect and save other expectant birthing parents. But there are still practical matters to attend to, like raising money for her funeral expenses.
Isaac’s story has also struck a chord with racial justice advocates in the area. On Tuesday, Chicona and Hawk Newsome, the brother and sister co-founders of Black Lives Matter New York, joined McIntyre for a press conference outside the Montefiore Medical Center.
“Hearing about Amber as a person is what really touches us,” Chivona Newsome told The City.
“We don’t want her to be another number. We want the world to see her face. We want the world to know her story. We want the world to know that she was making a positive impact on our community and all those around her.”