The fight for liberty and justice for all is ongoing and multifaceted, and the Black maternal health crisis is an important piece of the conversation we’re all having within the Black Lives Matter movement. In the United States (where the maternal death rate is higher than any other similarly wealthy country), black and native women are 4-5x more likely to die during childbirth; in my home city of New York, that risk is 8-12x greater than that of a white woman. Birth equity is a human rights issue, an intersectional feminist issue, and an integral part of preserving black life. What does this this mean for the families that are left behind when lives are lost? How does one heal after tragedy hits and how does one spring into action to seek justice?
For us to take action against Black maternal mortality, it takes much more than thinking about the statistics. We need to put a name and a face to the stories, and have a visceral reaction to this issue in order to make real, lasting change. This particular story centers Amber Isaac and Kira Johnson, and their partners and babies who were needlessly left behind.
Between Mother’s Month and Father’s Day, Mama Glow was joined for a webinar by Charles Johnson, the founder of 4Kira4Moms who became an advocate for birthing people when he tragically lost his wife Kira Johnson after a routine C-section in California, and Bruce McIntyre, the partner of Amber Isaac, a Bronx woman who tweeted about medical neglect and lost her life 3 days later during childbirth. Both Kira and Amber’s stories have sparked rage, sorrow, fear and action, and both Charles and Bruce are hard at work, motivated by their unfathomable pain to make birth justice Kira and Amber’s legacy. Because as Mama Glow founder Latham Thomas puts it: “We cannot do the work that we need to do without the strength of our ancestors.”
Honoring Amber Isaac & The ‘Save A Rose’ Foundation
The evening of conversation, remembrance, and advocacy was marked by Charles Johnson acknowledging at the very start of the webinar that the conversation needed to be anchored in celebration of the fact that Bruce McIntyre was the father of healthy baby Elias, born in April. But while Bruce and Elias will celebrate their first Father’s Day together later this month, the absence of Bruce’s partner and Elias’s mom, 26-year-old Amber Isaac, will be sorely felt.
In March, due to COVID-19, Amber Isaac’s appointments switched to Zoom during her third trimester. She was prescribed Iron pills, blood pressure monitor, and a thermometer to keep up with herself at point when was supposed to be seen every week because she was considered high risk due to her platelet levels (she never even got to meet her high risk OB/GYN because they canceled her appointment). Days after tweeting about Montefiore Medical Center’s incompetence handling her pregnancy, she was called to go into the hospital immediately for treatment due to her rapidly dropping platelets. Neither Bruce nor Amber’s mother were not allowed up with Amber (even though mother worked at the hospital and had her badge and PPE ). Amber was induced for labor the same day they told her they thought she had HELLP syndrome.
Two hours after Bruce finally got to Amber’s room, the couple was told Amber needed an emergency c-section. She was taken to the operating room while Bruce waited. After Bruce saw his baby rushed out of the OR, he heard an announcement over the loudspeaker that they had an emergency in the OR and needed all hands on deck for a non-COVID patient. That’s when Bruce says he realized something had gone terribly wrong. He would later find out that Amber coded as soon as they cut her open because her low platelet levels made her blood like water and prevented clotted. They spent two hours trying to revive her and massaging her heart, and even cut her open further to perform a hysterectomy. Bruce remembers white doctors tapping him on the shoulder saying “you’re gonna be alright,” before he and his family were finally told “I’m sorry for your loss.”
Coming from a place of heartbreaking personal experience, Bruce said “I feel like the insurance that grants them immunity is inhumane, because they are playing with someone’s life… Why would you spend so much time becoming a doctor, just to serve a certain demographic?” As an example, the value of a human life for medical malpractice in the state of California is $250,000. During COVID-19, especially, it will be hard to hold doctors accountable medically or civilly, since the pandemic presents and easy pass for insurance companies to protect themselves. Nevertheless, we’re still customers and clients, and lives are at stake. With tears in his eyes, Bruce said: “It’s very unfortunate that Amber’s life accomplishments were cut short do to negligence and incompetence.”
Bruce points out, too, that the care in place with our current medical model was quick to push medications his way to quiet his trauma. Reflecting on how he and his family were handled immediately following Amber’s unexpected passing, he said, “We really need to understand what they’re trying to do. What their agenda is. After Amber passed and we were meeting with therapists and getting evaluations done, without knowing our medical history, they were already throwing drugs at us… and I feel that right there is a flaw in the system. If I were to get put on drugs, how am I supposed to take care of my child if I’m doped up?… They are trying to poison our community.”
Although his grief is still fresh, Bruce said “Luckily I was able to stay strong through this and for Elias. I know Amber wouldn’t want me moping around. She would tell me to handle this. So I want to take care of this for her.”
“This,” for Bruce, is not only seeking justice for Amber’s death, but putting in the work so that what happened to his family never happens to anyone again. At the center of that work is recognizing the importance of bringing a birthing center to the Bronx so that expectant black families have options that support positive birth outcomes. Right now, the only birth center in the New York metropolitan area is in Brooklyn, which poses a problem of affordability and accessibility since not everyone has access to transportation to Brooklyn. What does it look like to create centers where babies can be born separate from institutions that are fixing sick and hurt people, since birth is a normal bodily function, not a disease? High c-section rates in Bronx hospitals persist where there are no midwives present. Furthermore, it’s necessary to make non-clinical care of doulas essential within a hospital setting, to advocate for the mothers’ wishes, hold doctors accountable for the equitable treatment of their patients, and demand informed consent, especially for women of color.
When asked about how he wants Amber to be remembered, this is just some of what Bruce McIntyre lovingly had to say: “Amber was just such a well-rounded woman. She was honestly that woman to change my life. She made me such a strong person. She was there for everyone… and she had the best advice for everyone. She was a leader amongst her peers… she was an innovator. She loved kids. Her whole career was based around kids… We had plans on moving to Florida, starting a daycare program or early life program so she could take care of kids and help underprivileged families. Even when we were planning to leave the Bronx, we wanted to come back and help the Bronx. Especially Amber.. She was a leader for the greater good of the future. We need to keep her memory alive and honor women like Amber who want to make change… I want to be able to spread her legacy everywhere. That’s the best honor I can give her.”
Honoring Kira Johnson & 4Kira4Moms
Kira Johnson lost her life after a scheduled emergency c-section for her second child, Langston, on April 13 2016. Following Langston’s birth, Johnson remarked that he and Kira noticed blood in her catheter, the result of internal bleeding that persisted for hours before the doctors finally gave them help. In the face of unfathomable tragedy, Charles sprang to action with Kira as his guide. He said, “She used to say to me every single night ‘So baby, what’s your plan?’ And so when everything happened and when she passed and I’m sitting here try to figure out how I’m going to put one foot in front of the other… the only thing I could hear in my head was ‘Baby, what’s your plan?’ And that’s what drives me every single day.”
With Kira’s voice in his head and spirit in his heart and the belief that love has the ability to turn pain into power, Charles founded 4Kira4Moms as a platform to advocate for improved maternal health policies and regulations. Presently, it is more expensive and more dangerous to give birth in the United States than anywhere else, especially if you are black. While being black does not genetically predispose you to maternal mortality, social determinate, access to care, and quality of care of the risk factors for black people giving birth in a US hospital setting. As Johnson put it, “We didn’t make it a racial issue, the statistics did,” and as those statistics show African American women are dying at a disproportionate, Johnson points out that if we lost that number of people in a terrorist attack, that would be an issue of national security.
“You either are a mother, or you have one,” Johnson says, making this a battle that no one can stand in opposition of: “I absolutely refuse for this to still be a problem when my sons are ready to have kids. I refuse for this to still be an issue when Elias goes to tell his Daddy he’s going to be a grandfather.”
A significant piece of that framing for justice is what out-of-hospital birth can look like, creating safe birthing spaces that are outside the “norm.” Johnson asserts that “doulas matter,” and every bill that comes to him needs to have funding for midwives and doulas, or else he won’t be his name on it. Johnson worked with congress to pass the preventing maternal death act( H.R.1318), which was signed into law on December 21, 2018 in Kira’s memory as the first legislation to combat the maternal death crisis in the United States.
It’s also important to stay up-to-date on what’s going on, and proactive about the funding that needs to be given to mothers and to childbirth. During the webinar, we were reminded to that if you feel like you were neglected, you have a place to share that story, as the federal government will publish that information for public reference.
When Latham asked Charles what he wanted us all to know about Kira as a person, this is what he said: “Whenever Kira walked into a room – infectious. Her smile lit it up. She never sought attention, but it just came her way… She is, she was, this five-foot-nothing, 98 pound ball of energy. And energy can’t be destroyed. It just moves from one body to another… Even to this day, we still co-parent. There is not a major decision I make that I don’t think about what Kira would do… It is Kira’s spirit and Kira’s energy that powers everything I do. Powered by Kira.”
Resources & Calls to Action
During the webinar, Latham Thomas said “We can make change in and of ourselves. We don’t need to wait for someone else to show up. No one else is coming. It’s going to be us that has to do it.” With that in mind, here are some organizations and resources to support families in need and motivate others to take action in this fight for birth justice:
- Bx (Re)Birth and Progress
- The Birthing Place
- Maternal Mental Health Now
- Black Mamas Matter Alliance
- Choices in Childbirth
- Save A Rose Foundation
- “The Business of Being Born” Documentary & Sequels
- Natal Stories Podcast
- Mothers to Mothers
- Open Path Psychotherapy Collective
- In Honor of Mothers: KSLA Birth Center Fund