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birthing while black

'If Amber was white, Amber would be here': A father's message after his son's mother's death

Bruce McIntyre with his three-month-old son Elias McIntyre at home in the Bronx Aug. 5, 2020. Bruce's girlfriend, Amber Isaac, died delivering her son through a c-section. Tania Savayan/The Journal News

May 12.

It is the day, 29 years ago, that Bruce McIntyre was born.

And it is the day, four months ago, that he buried his partner, Amber Rose Isaac.

Isaac, 26, died delivering her son through a cesarean section, six weeks before her due date, and four days after tweeting that her doctors were incompetent and racist.

"If Amber was white, Amber would be here," McIntyre said. "Amber would have got standard care if she were white. Amber did not receive standard care, and that’s the problem."

Black women are 2½ times more likely to die in childbirth than white women. And experts say institutional racism is to blame.

Education makes little difference.

A report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that compared death rates by education found that Black women with at least a college degree fared better, but were still 5.2 times more likely to die than white women with the same education.

Bruce McIntyre and Amber Isaac.
Bruce McIntyre and Amber Isaac.
Contributed

Isaac, a teacher in Lutheran Social Services of New York's Early LIFE program, pursuing her graduate degree in business management at Concordia College in Bronxville, knew this. She was prepared.

It didn't matter.

Doctors ignored her. The hospital failed her.

After three months of apathetic telemedicine visits and lost lab results, doctors diagnosed Isaac with a rare blood disease that hinders clotting. 

They realized her life was in danger, and decided to induce. 

The induction failed.

Isaac needed a C-section. Because it was an emergency, they put her under general anesthesia — and McIntyre was not allowed to be with her as she gave birth.

They made the incision. Amber's heart stopped.

She died, without her partner, without her mother.

“She coded immediately," McIntyre said. "Her blood was like water at this point. 

"She bled out. She died as soon as they cut her open.”

'If Amber was white, Amber would be here': A father's message after his son's mother died
Bruce McIntyre shares the story of how his girlfriend, Amber Rose Isaac, died delivering their son through a c-section in April.
Tania Savayan, tsavayan@lohud.com

'She was an innovator'

Isaac wasn't the kind of person who tolerated failure.

Isaac was an advocate of self-care. She loved listening to music. She vibed to Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu and Solange. She grooved to Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole. She was an artist who loved art in multiple forms — Amber both loved to look at paintings and to paint; she loved writing and reading poetry.

Above all, she was a warm, caring and loving person.

“She wanted to start a program for underprivileged families, for children,” McIntyre said. “She wanted (to) open up a school. … (She was) very passionate about the community and very, very passionate about children.”

Combining her psychology degree, her master’s degree and her art background, Amber planned to create an art therapy program for children, and then decided to start an early life program for underprivileged mothers and children.

“She was an innovator. She was an out-of-the-box thinker. She had always done things that other people wouldn’t think of,” he said. “She found ways to have the kids cooperate in certain activities that weren’t (interesting) to them. Sometimes it’s hard to gain a child’s attention, especially at such an early age, but Amber was able to do it.”

McIntyre had known Amber for about 12 years, though, for most of that time, they were just friends. McIntyre divided his time between North Carolina and the Bronx, while Amber was in school.

About six years ago, he asked Amber on a date, but she turned him down. She was focused on her education.

When Amber graduated from college, she invited him to her ceremony. After that, they went out, and, from then on, they were together.

In August of last year, Amber decided she was ready for her first child. McIntyre knows the exact date that Amber made the decision: Aug. 11.

They went out to Brooklyn, to Smorgasburg, the food-vendor market. Afterward, the couple ambled through Prospect Zoo. While looking at the animals, they talked about their lives and their future plans.

As they were heading back to McIntyre’s car, they noticed a bookstore. Amber, who loved to read, wanted to go in and get a new book.

“She (saw) this rap, hip hop book for babies,” McIntyre said. “It had little baby Tupac, little baby Biggie, little baby Kendrick — and she looked at me and she said, ‘We are not leaving without this book.'"

From there, the couple started talking about families. They decided it was time to start their own. By September, Amber was pregnant.

As soon as she found out that she was going to become a mother, she bought books on parenting, McIntyre said. “She was doing a lot of reading in regards to how to raise a healthy baby, how to raise a healthy child.”

Amber became even more conscious about her health when she found out she was going to be a mother. She wanted to make her own baby food. The couple purchased a baby food processor and a book about organics for babies and infants.

Amber, a pescatarian, became a vegan as soon as she became pregnant. McIntyre believes that Amber’s self-care is the reason their baby is so healthy.

"Amber was more hip to maternal mortality and racism when it came to maternal health," said McIntyre. "I wasn’t too familiar with it, but I was very familiar with what was going on here in America and systemic racism. But not too much when it came to maternal health. I thought we were safe."

'Amber's voicing her concern'

The trouble started in January, when Amber was feeling weak and fatigued. It was sometimes hard for her to breathe and she was dizzy.

By February, the COVID-19 pandemic was becoming a threat, but Amber was still going to work. 

Bruce McIntyre holds his son, Elias McIntyre, at home in the Bronx. Bruce's partner, Amber Isaac, pictured in the image behind them, died delivering her son through a C-section after doctors failed to diagnose a rare blood disorder. "She coded immediately," McIntyre said.
Bruce McIntyre holds his son, Elias McIntyre, at home in the Bronx. Bruce's partner, Amber Isaac, pictured in the image behind them, died delivering her... Bruce McIntyre holds his son, Elias McIntyre, at home in the Bronx. Bruce's partner, Amber Isaac, pictured in the image behind them, died delivering her son through a C-section after doctors failed to diagnose a rare blood disorder. "She coded immediately," McIntyre said.
Tania Savayan/The Journal News

“There are kids who are coming to school sick — sick with no doctor’s notes, which is against policy,” McIntyre said. “Amber had to deal with that. These kids are coughing on her, wiping saliva on her. She’s having to pick them up (and) they’re kicking her in her stomach. She has to carry them up and down stairs sometimes — mind you she’s having shortness of breath at this time.”

Amber told her OB-GYN at Montefiore Moses in the Bronx what was happening, and asked for help getting early family medical leave.

“Amber’s voicing her concern because it’s really becoming a problem, it’s affecting her everyday life now," McIntyre said. He said that Instead of her OB-GYN writing her concerns down on the Family Medical Leave Act application, her OB-GYN just put down on the paper, "Amber wants to leave for personal reasons."

Black maternity stories shared
Women and doctors share their stories of Black maternity

Amber’s early FMLA was denied. The couple tried the process again. Eventually, the OB-GYN said that they would need to appoint a high-risk doctor in order to file an early FMLA.

“They didn’t appoint her to a high-risk doctor because of what Amber was feeling — she appointed her to a high-risk doctor just so she could get the forms filled out,” McIntyre said.

Isaac never met with the high risk doctor. Doctors canceled a high-risk appointment and rescheduled it for April 24 — three days after she died.

The couple had had blood work done on Feb. 24, the day after Amber’s birthday.

Despite repeatedly checking her patient portal, and calling and calling to ask for results, she never saw them. Doctors told her she'd developed anemia, and told her to take iron pills.

Bruce McIntyre
They’re not helping at all. They’re telling Amber to monitor herself, to monitor her blood pressure. They’re telling Amber to take iron pills. That’s really it. And Amber was getting tired of it.

“They’re not helping at all,” McIntyre said. “They’re telling Amber to monitor herself, to monitor her blood pressure. They’re telling Amber to take iron pills. That’s really it. And Amber was getting tired of it.”

Amber continued to be exhausted, and found it hard to breathe. She was also feeling neglected, and decided to drop the hospital in favor of a home birth. 

The couple found Nubia Martin, with Birth from the Earth in Yonkers, New York. Before taking them on, Martin needed to see Amber’s updated lab results.

Amber Isaac.
Amber Isaac.
Contributed

“They knew they weren’t getting the best care that they needed and they were really desperately trying to seek alternative options,” Martin said. “When I said, ‘Please get me your records right away so I can see if you’re a good candidate for home birth,' they didn’t hesitate. … They were very committed to trying to get the best care for her, trying to make sure that they were doing the best thing for their unborn child.”

Finally, after months of being ignored, they received the lab results, and gave them to Martin.

They did not receive the answer they were hoping for.

In fact, Martin found, her platelet levels, which are responsible for clotting, were dangerously low.

“I told her, ‘Your platelet levels are (so) low that unfortunately you are not a good candidate for home birth, but you need to call your provider and demand an in-person meeting with them right away,'” Martin said.

The couple didn’t even know that Amber was high-risk. They hadn’t been told.

“Amber had maybe four or five doctors signing off on her paperwork — they didn’t tell us at all that her platelet levels were dropping at a dangerous rate, so obviously they weren’t paying attention," McIntyre said. "They were just signing off.”

‘I should write an exposé’

After Martin told Isaac to see her doctor, she decided to change locations. She moved from the Montefiore Moses to Montefiore Einstein, also in the Bronx, where her mother worked for 25 years.

Things were looking up. McIntyre said that the couple was assured that the hospital was ready for them, and that they would have a head surgeon take care of her.

Still, they were having issues with Amber’s blood work. On April 13, she had new tests done, McIntyre said, but they did not hear anything back.

Bruce McIntyre plays music for his son, Elias McIntyre, just like he did when he was in the womb. Bruce and his partner, Amber Isaac, did not know she had low blood platelets until a midwife checked her lab results when screening her health for a home birth. “Amber had maybe four or five doctors signing off on her paperwork — they didn’t tell us at all that her platelet levels were dropping at a dangerous rate, so obviously they weren’t paying attention," McIntyre said. "They were just signing off.” Isaac died giving birth to their son through a C-section.
Bruce McIntyre plays music for his son, Elias McIntyre, just like he did when he was in the womb. Bruce and his partner, Amber Isaac,... Bruce McIntyre plays music for his son, Elias McIntyre, just like he did when he was in the womb. Bruce and his partner, Amber Isaac, did not know she had low blood platelets until a midwife checked her lab results when screening her health for a home birth. “Amber had maybe four or five doctors signing off on her paperwork — they didn’t tell us at all that her platelet levels were dropping at a dangerous rate, so obviously they weren’t paying attention," McIntyre said. "They were just signing off.” Isaac died giving birth to their son through a C-section.
Tania Savayan/The Journal News

“Amber’s leaving voicemails, Amber’s leaving emails, (and we hear) nothing from the lab. So (her mother) reaches out to someone in a higher tier to reach out to the lab,” he said.

No one recalled her appointment, and there were no results. After her mother intervened, they finally got a call back and scheduled another appointment for the 17th.

Amber's mother went along, but it didn't make much of a difference.

“She’s calling me like, ‘Hey they don’t have my updated blood work. The doctor hasn’t sent it over,” McIntyre said. “The doctor’s blaming the people at the lab, the people at the lab are blaming the doctor. Amber is like, ‘I just came here on the 13th to get some blood work done. What happened with that?’”

The system had deleted — "cleared out," McIntyre said — her appointment on the 13th, so there was no record. They did still have her blood work for Feb. 24.

The hospital told the couple to come back later in the day once they got everything together. Finally, the hospital called them. Again, the doctors blamed the lab and the lab blamed the doctors.

“Amber was very frustrated, so that’s actually the day that she tweeted what she tweeted about wanting to write a tell-all about the incompetence and the negligence that she’s dealt with, with the health care system at Montefiore. That was the day she did that.”

Her final days

When they finally examined the lab results, doctors diagnosed Amber with HELLP syndrome, a rare medical condition that involves hemolysis, elevated liver enzymes and low platelet count. HELLP can also cause blood clotting that can lead to hemorrhaging.

Doctors told the couple they wanted to bring Amber in for treatment. She went to the hospital on April 18.

“So we get there. Amber’s very scared at this point," McIntyre said. "She doesn’t want to go by herself. She doesn’t want to be by herself in the hands of them.”

Bruce McIntyre
So we get there. Amber’s very scared at this point. She doesn’t want to go by herself. She doesn’t want to be by herself in the hands of them.

McIntyre said he tried to be present with Amber, but he was separated from her because of COVID-19. Throughout, he said, the treatment he received from hospital staff was rude and insensitive.

“We had nasty people at the front and security guards (who were) like, 'OK, Mr. Baby Daddy, go sit over there.’ They actually made me leave because I got into an altercation with one of the security guards because I didn’t like the way that they were talking to us,” McIntyre said. “They were very rude and disrespectful and they weren’t trying to understand what we were going through.”

Jessica Tanguay, the co-treasurer of BirthNet, an anti-racist organization whose mission is to eliminate the inequities in birth outcomes, recounts instances of families, specifically of male partners, being treated poorly by hospital staff.

“We’re hearing more stories of Black and brown men who are there supporting their partners and they’re very scared because, thanks to the media attention, it’s undeniable the differences in outcomes (between white women and Black women),” Tanguay said. “They really want to keep their loved ones safe, but they walk into these spaces fearing being deemed an angry Black man."

Amber spent two nights in the hospital. They decided to induce her labor on the 20th, six weeks before she was due.

“She’s calling me like, ‘Pack some bags, they’re inducing my labor today. Pack bags for myself, pack bags for you, pack bags for Elias.’ As if I’m going to be there for a day or two,” McIntyre said.

He said, this time, the staff was very warm toward him. After taking his COVID test, the staff let McIntyre be with Amber. He said they made him comfortable, giving him pillows, blankets and food.

“I was with Amber for maybe two hours after that,” McIntyre said, choking up. “They were going over some things with us and (said) that they had to induce her labor.”

The induction did not work. The doctors had to do the C-section.

Her heart stopped when they made the incision. Doctors spent two hours trying to revive her, and she died just after midnight April 21.

Bruce McIntyre says his partner, Amber Rose Isaac, couldn't get answers from her doctors. "There’s this repetitive cycle, where when it comes to Black, brown, indigenous, that valuable information (fails) to be delivered," he said. "Which is exactly what happened to Amber."
Bruce McIntyre says his partner, Amber Rose Isaac, couldn't get answers from her doctors. "There’s this repetitive cycle, where when it comes to Black, brown,... Bruce McIntyre says his partner, Amber Rose Isaac, couldn't get answers from her doctors. "There’s this repetitive cycle, where when it comes to Black, brown, indigenous, that valuable information (fails) to be delivered," he said. "Which is exactly what happened to Amber."
Tania Savayan/The Journal News

"She bled out," McIntyre said. "She died as soon as they cut her open.”

Montiefiore would not discuss the case, but offered this statement: “Ninety-four percent of our deliveries are minority mothers, and Montefiore’s maternal mortality rate of 0.01% is lower than both New York City and national averages. Any maternal death is a tragedy. Our hearts go out to Ms. Isaac’s family, especially to her mother, our longtime colleague.”

Amber gave birth to a healthy, happy boy, Elias Isaac McIntyre. 

“Even though he was premature, he was developing well,” McIntyre said. “At first, they told me he was going to be in the NICU for maybe a month, (then) maybe a couple of weeks. But he was accelerating at all of his tests. I ended up getting him at the end of the week.”

He's now 4 months old, holding up his head on his own, laughing, smiling and babbling at his dad. 

"He’s such an amazing boy,” McIntyre said.

The day after Isaac died, McIntyre was advocating for Black mothers immediately.

Along with Martin and Myla Fores, he started the Save A Rose foundation, which is raising money to help bring a birthing center to the Bronx, which has the highest C-section rate in the state. 

Additionally, Birth from the Earth and the Save a Rose Foundation have partnered to create a scholarship program that offsets the cost of insurance premiums for home births. The scholarship is named in Isaac's honor.

McIntyre is also working on making midwifery and doula services more accessible and affordable for underprivileged pregnant women.

They have raised $25,000, with the promise of a lot more.  

McIntyre said he wants to be able to carry on the wish Isaac tweeted about before she died: To write a tell-all about the racism she experienced.

"There’s this repetitive cycle, where when it comes to Black, brown, indigenous, that valuable information (fails) to be delivered," he said. "Which is exactly what happened to Amber."

Adria R. Walker covers public education for the Democrat and Chronicle in partnership with Report for America. Follow her on Twitter at @adriawalkr or send her an email at arwalker@gannett.com. This reporting is made possible by readers like you. Thank you for signing up today for a digital subscription.



The team behind this story

REPORTING: Swapna Venugopal Ramaswamy, Adria Walker, Ashley Biviano

PHOTOGRAPHY AND VIDEOGRAPHY: Tania Savayan, Anne Marie Caruso, Joe Lamberti

PHOTO EDITORS: Carrie Yale, Sean Oates, Magdeline Bassett

EDITORS: Liz Johnson, Dan Sforza

DIGITAL PRODUCTION AND DEVELOPMENT: Spencer Holladay, Maddi Ference, Phil Strum, Annette Meade

PRINT PRODUCTION: Scott Muller, Michael Babin