Amber Rose Isaac and her longtime partner, Bruce McIntyre III, had always dreamed of opening a daycare center to serve their Bronx and Harlem communities.
Isaac, who had a bachelor’s degree in psychology and was studying for her master’s in business development at Concordia College, wanted “to bring art therapy to the youth” and to families with limited incomes, he said. McIntyre, then a stock market consultant, knew that the duo could make it all happen by putting their skills to use.
Their dream was dashed shortly after midnight on April 21, 2020, when Isaac — “a divine light” in McIntyre’s life — died giving birth to their son Elias via an emergency C-section at Montefiore Medical Center in The Bronx. She was 26 years old.
McIntyre, 29, sometimes slips into the present tense when talking about her.
“She was a leader amongst her peers. She just always had the best advice and she always, whenever you speak to her, she’s always attentive,” he said. “If she loves you, she makes it known that you’re loved.”
In the year since Isaac’s death, McIntyre has reoriented his life to focus on maternal mortality, meeting with lawmakers and helping draft local legislation. He’s also teamed with local birth justice activists, doulas and midwives to increase access to prenatal care in Black communities.
McIntyre does most of his organizing through the Save A Rose Foundation, a birth equity advocacy group he created shortly after Isaac’s death. Among the organization’s goals: to help open a free-standing birthing center in The Bronx — and to create Isaac’s “dream art therapy program.”
“I feel like I’m not doing enough still. But every day I wake up fighting for her,” he said. “I have to feel like I’m doing something for her. Because I can’t let her and her name go out in vain.”
A ‘Red Flag’
Isaac died days after tweeting that she wanted to write a “tell all” about the “incompetent doctors at Montefiore.”
Can’t wait to write a tell all about my experience during my last two trimesters dealing with incompetent doctors at Montefiore— ✨ (@Radieux_Rose) April 17, 2020
Though her blood platelet count had been declining since December 2019, Isaac had her last in-person prenatal appointment in late February 2020 when she was about six months pregnant, according to McIntyre. All of her appointments from that point up until she went into labor in April had been virtual as the pandemic began.
When hospitals state-wide banned partners from delivery rooms last spring, Isaac and McIntyre, like many expecting parents, considered a homebirth. The couple had an appointment with Nubia Earth Martin, a Yonkers-based midwife and doula, on April 2 last year.
Martin was “immediately” concerned by Isaac’s prenatal medical records, including her low platelet count, she told THE CITY.
Also alarming, Martin said, was that Isaac was denied leave from work at a Harlem day care center even though she was experiencing chronic fatigue — likely caused by her low platelet levels, she said citing records she reviewed as part of her consultation.
“When she said she had not seen her provider in person since February, that immediately jumps out as a red flag to me — that she said that they told her that telehealth was enough,” Martin said.
She declined Isaac as a client because the mother-to-be was anemic, and urged the couple to find a doctor or hospital that could take over for her care. Midwives generally do not take on high-risk pregnant people as clients because homebirth environments do not provide certain key resources, such as blood transfusions.
Harris Took Notice
Doctors at Montefiore induced labor on April 20, a month before her due date. Isaac was diagnosed with HELLP syndrome — a group of symptoms considered a variant of preeclampsia, a pregnancy complication involving high blood pressure and organ damage — that same day, McIntyre said.
McIntyre wasn’t allowed into the operating room as Isaac was wheeled in for an emergency C-section. As he later told the City Council, he said that hospital staff later informed him that Isaac’s blood wouldn’t clot — “it was like water.”
Her uterus was removed in an effort to stop the bleeding, McIntyre said he was told — and that doctors ultimately massaged her heart in a failed bid to keep her alive.
“It seemed like nobody in that room knew what they were doing at all,” McIntyre told THE CITY.
Their son, Elias Isaac McIntyre, was born late on April 20. Isaac died minutes later, shortly after midnight. She never got the chance to hold her newborn child.
Montefiore billed the family $2,000 after her death, which they were forced to pay.
News of Isaac’s death quickly drew national attention, including from Vice President Kamala Harris, then a U.S. senator.
“We need to speak truth that this pandemic is highlighting deep racial disparities in our health care system,” Harris tweeted.
On Tuesday, Tracy Gurrisi, a Montefiore spokesperson, issued a statement similar to the one released after THE CITY first reported on Isaac’s death last year.
“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,” Gurrisi wrote. “Any maternal death is a tragedy.”
Stark Disparities in NYC
In New York City, Black women are eight times more likely to die due to pregnancy complications than white women, according to city data from 2018. That figure is significantly higher than the disparity seen at the national level.
And The Bronx has the highest rate of severe maternal morbidity of the five boroughs, with a rate of 337.1 per 10,000 live births, according to a 2019 report filed by the city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. That report, the most recently available, covers incidents in 2016.
A December 2020 study by the city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene found that hemorrhage was the leading cause in maternal deaths in New York City. The task force behind that study released a series of recommendations that same month.
That same study found that the severity of symptoms that lead to overall childbirth deaths in the city could have been reduced by implementing “improvements in clinical risk assessment and decision-making by providers; adoption of facility-level policies to adhere to gold-standard clinical protocols and care coordination; and earlier patient entry into prenatal care.”
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 700 women die in the United States each year from pregnancy-related complications. By the CDC’s estimates, two-thirds of those deaths occur in the days and weeks postpartum — and about two-thirds of deaths overall were determined to be preventable.
A 2017 study by the medical journal The Lancet found that the United States has the highest rate of maternal deaths in the developed world — a trend that’s steadily increased over the last two decades, though it has decreased in New York since 2001, according to the December 2020 DOHMH study.
The state should put more resources into hospitals in underserved communities, said Katy Cecen, a midwife and former natal intensive care unit nurse in Brooklyn.
She also linked cuts to public health care programs like Medicaid — which currently does not cover most midwife or doula services — to the city’s maternal mortality rate.
“If we keep spending less and less money on the care for the group that we know is having the worst outcomes, then we can’t be surprised,” Cecen said. “We’re being murderously disingenuous, to pretend to be surprised when those outcomes continue to get worse.”
Push for State Laws
McIntyre successfully lobbied Bronx State Sen. Gustavo Rivera to include coverage for midwife and doula services as part of the New York Health Act, a bill originally presented in 2019 in a bid to provide free health care to all New Yorkers and people employed in the state.
Meanwhile, a separate bill also sponsored by Rivera that would streamline the accreditation and operation of midwifery birth centers in the state passed the Senate Health Committee on Monday.
“For you to be a single father in those conditions, is bad enough,” the senator said of McIntyre. “But to then get the courage to be able to say, like, ‘This was something that shouldn’t happen to other people,’ and to use that as a way to advocate to change law and policy like that — that takes an enormous amount of courage and commitment. So I thank him for that.”
In a lengthy and emotional testimony before a Dec. 7, 2020, virtual joint hearing by the City Council’s Women & Gender Equity and Health & Hospitals committees, McIntyre spoke about the circumstances surrounding Isaac’s death and the disparities that make The Bronx the deadliest borough for Black maternal mortality.
“You don’t need new fancy machines or budget cuts to prevent these outcomes from happening. You just have to ensure equal standard of care between hospitals,” he testified.
Though speakers addressing the City Council are generally allowed only three minutes, Women & Gender Equity Committee Chair Helen Rosenthal (D-Manhattan), gave McIntyre unlimited time to testify. He spoke uninterrupted for more than half an hour.
“I have had to become a doctor, I have had to become a birth worker, a maternal health activist, a community leader, a politician, all while raising a son who will never get to see his mother,” he said at the hearing. “Why is it that I have to do all of this research? I don’t even have time to grieve.”
Fund Aids Families
McIntyre hosted his first rally in honor of Isaac last May, to protest the $2,000 bill the family received shortly after her death. He held a larger demonstration near Montefiore Medical Center in August.
Since then, McIntyre has participated in panels and conferences advocating against medical treatment disparities for Black people, speaking alongside birth workers and advocates from New York City and beyond.
His Save A Rose Foundation — named after Isaac — is active in its advocacy on social media, but he is still fundraising and gathering grants to get it off the ground.
McIntyre is also collaborating with Martin, the Yonkers midwife and doula, on a “scholarship” granted through her center Birth From The Earth, Inc. that provides low-income families with up to $2,000 to offset the cost to hire midwife or doula services. The fund has already aided 21 families, according to Martin.
The duo began working together after meeting in-person at McIntyre’s first rally in front of Montefiore.
“I thought, if that’s the energy that he’s bringing into this fight, then I’m going to back him up right away,” Martin said.
McIntyre is organizing another protest against the hospital on April 25 to commemorate a year since the death of the woman he calls a hero, and demand accountability from the hospital.
“Amber was clearly neglected and done wrong,” McIntyre told THE CITY. “If Amber Rose Isaac does not get justice, then justice does not exist in this country.”
‘Such a Happy Baby’
McIntyre works on all of his projects while raising Elias in the Riverdale home he shares with Isaac’s mother.
He has also had to contend with a lengthy legal battle to get his name on Elias’ birth certificate. Since the couple was unmarried at the time of their son’s birth, McIntyre said, the hospital needed Isaac’s consent to include both in the birth certificate.
Although McIntyre claims he signed “every document the hospital asked for” and that Isaac “was alive to attest that I was the father” when she was admitted for delivery, only her name appeared on the baby’s birth certificate.
It took a positive DNA test and several surrogate court hearings to settle the dispute, McIntyre said, though the matter has not yet been finalized.
Elias, who turned 1 on Tuesday, is “such a happy baby” and “not much of a crier,” McIntyre said.
The boy “loves to listen to the piano,” he said, noting he and Isaac played music to him while he was in utero: “It feels like he’s always been our son.”
‘That’s Your Mama’
McIntyre talks to Elias about his mom often and shows him pictures. He said he believes Isaac “would be very proud” of the work he’s done to honor her memory.
“When people ask me where I find the power to do this work, I tell them this is not my power. This is Amber’s power,” he said.
“And I’ve tried every day to show that piece of her and show who she is, and keeping her legacy alive, because I don’t feel like Amber is gone. And I don’t want to feel like all of her milestones and accomplishments just went in vain. She worked very hard for everything that she went for,” McIntyre told THE CITY in an interview via Zoom. “And I feel like it’s my job to fulfill that, to keep her name and her dream alive.”
A week later, McIntyre sat on a bench in Manhattan’s Riverbank State Park, Elias straddled on his torso. Father and son wore matching beige outfits.
Elias babbled as he played with a button pinned on McIntyre’s shoulder of a black-and-white photo of Isaac with the words “Justice for Amber.” It sounded like he was saying “Mama.”
“Yeah, that’s right,” McIntyre responded. “That’s your mama.”