By Monica Alonzo
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"You never really pay attention to this stuff until it happens to you. Then it does, and it's just scary how they treat people," he says.
Ambrett Spencer acknowledged in court that she deserved jail time for her actions. On May 21, 2005, she made a potentially deadly choice by driving drunk.
Instead of killing anyone, though, Spencer caused a minor fender-bender when she bumped into another car while stopping at an intersection. The other driver was not injured. When the cops arrived, Spencer confessed to driving under the influence. Not that she needed to. She blew a .204 B.A.C.
Spencer started alcohol treatment at Terros Rehab in west Phoenix. Months later, she got pregnant. Spencer was 30 and excited to have a second child. She hoped to marry her fiancé, Kenny, the baby's father.
In March 2006, Spencer pleaded guilty to two DUIs and received a 2 1/2-year sentence.
Spencer had been in the jail for about a month when the baby was born.
Spencer worked at hospitals for six years, registering pregnant mothers when they came in to give birth. Based on that experience, she says, she would have headed straight for a hospital had she not been in the jail that night.
Drug use plays a factor in many jail pregnancies, but Spencer's baby had no drugs in her system, nor did she show any symptoms of fetal alcohol syndrome, a county autopsy reveals.
The Maricopa County Medical Examiner concluded that Spencer's baby died from placental abruption — a malady that occurs naturally in about one in 100 near-term pregnancies.
Dr. Michael Foley, an OB/GYN at Scottsdale Healthcare, explains abruption as the separation of the placenta from the wall of the womb. That separation results in bleeding and a loss of blood to the baby.
The condition is not usually fatal, if the mother gets to a hospital, says Dr. Ingrid Haas, another OB/GYN. The treatment for abruption is simple, both doctors agreed: immediate delivery. The longer the delay, the less likely that the baby will survive. (Both doctors declined to speak about Spencer specifically, but spoke about abruption in general terms.)
Haas has never seen a placental abruption end in death — that is, when the mother went straight to the hospital. "Likelihood of survival is very good if the woman is full-term and goes straight to the hospital," she said.
She added that the fastest abruption she's ever seen wasn't complete until one hour after the severe pain started. That would explain why Spencer's baby still had a heartbeat around 4 a.m. — more than an hour after the pain began.
When Spencer's lawsuit goes to trial, possibly next year, medical experts will likely say that her baby would have survived — if Spencer had been taken straight to the hospital.
Ultimately, a judge or jury will decide whether Arpaio's guards and health staff were at fault. In the county's favor is the fact that placental abruption can be difficult to diagnose.
But Spencer's attorney, Joel Robbins, writes that the abruption would have been diagnosed — if Spencer had seen an actual doctor. "Despite Ambrett's obvious pain and distress, Defendants waited hours to obtain emergency treatment for Ambrett," he writes.
Arpaio and the county deny any wrongdoing, though they do acknowledge that Spencer complained of pain. Dennis Wilenchik, the county's contract attorney, wrote in a court brief that staff took Spencer's vitals, documented the fetal heart rate, and then called for an ambulance at 4:44 a.m.
The county blames Southwest Ambulance — for not transporting Spencer to the hospital quickly enough. Wilenchik writes that Southwest took nearly an hour to get Spencer to the hospital. By the county's own records, however, Southwest Ambulance was not called until almost two hours after jail staff knew about Spencer's pain.
Spencer blames the jail for keeping her from a hospital.
"I'm not blaming anyone for the placental abruption," she says in her deposition, but "they could have gotten me to the hospital sooner. They could have gotten me up to medical sooner . . . Why didn't I see the doctor? That's a question that I've gone over in my head a billion times. A doctor never came in there to see me."
If her baby had survived, today Ambria Spencer would be 2 years old.