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Amber Rose Isaac was about 36 weeks pregnant when she finally saw a doctor face-to-face again. The 26-year-old Black woman had been complaining of dizziness and extreme fatigue since early on in her pregnancy, but with the coronavirus pandemic sweeping the nation, all of her medical appointments were being conducted virtually—despite her pleas to be seen in person.
That same day, Isaac tweeted that she couldn’t wait to share her experiences of “dealing with incompetent doctors.”
At the time, Isaac could barely make it around the block of their apartment in the Bronx. Her partner, Bruce McIntyre III, had to prop her up as she walked. Even though Isaac repeatedly complained to her doctors, they offered her only tele-health appointments and no diagnosis.
Feeling frustrated with the lack of medical insight into her deteriorating health, Isaac reached out to a local midwife and doula duo, who upon inspecting Isaac’s records quickly noticed abnormalities and advised her to get bloodwork done. But by the time Issac went in that day in April, her platelet count had already fallen dangerously low.
It turns out, Isaac had HELLP Syndrome, a serious pregnancy complication that affects the blood and liver. And she died while giving birth to her son, Elias.
“There are several solutions to take care of this, if caught early on,” McIntyre told VICE News. “It wasn't caught early on.”
Before the novel coronavirus hit the U.S., pregnant Black women were already dying at rates three to four times higher than white women. In New York City, where Isaac was from, the disparity was even worse: Black women were dying at 8 times the rate. Overall, the U.S. had the highest amount of maternal deaths out of 10 similarly wealthy countries. And, according to the CDC, 60% of those were preventable.
But the pandemic has only exacerbated pre-existing disparities in maternal care. McIntyre says he and Isaac were already facing discrimination from doctors and switching to telehealth only amplified that. In other cases, like in more rural and low-income areas, telehealth wasn’t even an option, creating yet another obstacle for those seeking prenatal care.
“With COVID, we don't have those statistics yet, but it's super exacerbated,” said Emilie Rodriguez, a Bronx-based doula and founder of Ashe Birthing Services. “Lots of people are falling through the cracks, especially Black and Brown people.”
Many factors—like location, access to health insurance, and underlying health conditions—contribute to maternal health outcomes. But ultimately, they don’t explain the drastic difference in mortality rates between white and Black birthing people. Rodriguez, for example, has noticed that doctors often treat her Black and white clients differently.
“Black people are not believed when we experience symptoms, when we say we're in labor, when we say we know what's best for our bodies.”
“The reason is racism in the hospital setting,” she said. “When the mother or birthing person is Black in a hospital it’s a completely different experience. Black people are not believed when we experience symptoms, when we say we're in labor, when we say we know what's best for our bodies.”
At the peak of the pandemic, hospital networks also barred partners and birthing workers from accompanying mothers in labor, effectively dissolving the support systems known to improve outcomes for all birthing people and their babies. For Black birthing people, who experience discrimination during birth, having support is especially important.
“If I wasn't here today, my client would never have had the same experience, ever, especially in the hospital setting,” Rodriguez said. “Doulas are really necessary.”
Isaac and McIntyre knew that. That’s why they tried to switch her delivery from a hospital to a birthing center, where they felt they’d get more attention and support. But the workers there turned them down. They said Isaac looked to be high-risk and urged her to get checked out immediately. That’s when she finally realized her platelet count was so low.
Days later, she bled out during her c-section.
“If Amber was white, she would definitely be here,” said McIntyre, who’s been lobbying to build the first birthing center in the Bronx since Isaac’s death. “They would have paid more attention to her. They wouldn't let this happen to a white woman.”