BATON ROUGE — A new baby was coming, so the aunts, uncles and cousins arrived by the dozens, their cars taking up the entire block and the lawn across the street, as they always did for Allen family parties. Carrying diapers and wipes, they gathered on the cracked driveway beneath the arching branches of an oak tree, waiting to learn whether Kenna Allen was having a boy or a girl.
It was Saturday, March 7, just days before they would learn how dangerous gatherings like this one had become. In 48 hours, Louisiana would report its first case of a lethal new virus, a distant worry that no one mentioned as they boiled crawfish and took photos in matching shirts with the words “He or she, what will baby bee?”
Kenna, a 34-year-old single mother navigating a high-risk pregnancy, took a selfie of her baby bump at about 18 weeks. She was wearing a “Mommy to bee” sash, part of the bumblebee theme she had chosen for the party. Her two daughters, 7 and 15, released blue and pink smoke bombs on the driveway. The guests wrote out ideas for names on a chalkboard: For a boy, Traylon, Travis or Taylor. For a girl, Brooklyn, Taylin or Treasure.
Her best friend and sister, the only ones who knew the baby’s sex, held up a sheet with rows of black balloons and the words “What will baby be? Pop to see.”
“Hit it!” Kenna’s cousin shouted.
Kenna popped each balloon until a onesie fell out of one of them, revealing what they all came to learn: The baby would be a girl.
Everyone hollered. Kenna ran from the garage into the living room, overwhelmed and disappointed. In a family of so many women, Kenna and her daughters had prayed for a boy. But a few moments later, Kenna walked back outside and smiled.
“This baby is loved,” she told her guests. “I can’t wait for her to be here.”
As a gift, Kenna’s best friend gave her matching necklaces for her three daughters, delicate gold chains with the words “big sis,” “mid sis,” and “lil sis.”
Second-grader E’lajah imagined teaching her little sister how to dance. Tenth-grader Darrielle dreamed of getting her license and driving around with two little sisters in the back seat. And Kenna thought about the outfit her baby would wear as she came home from the hospital in August: A white onesie with pink bows and a rhinestone princess crown.
It was one of the last days before Kenna started seeing stories on the news about people sickened at the same Mardi Gras parades she’d gone to in New Orleans, before her boss — worried about her pregnancy — told Kenna to stay home from her job at the Shell plant, before the virus began ripping through black communities like hers.
Before the day in mid-March when she started feeling a tightness in her chest.
‘Don’t give up’
Kenna pleaded with the doctor at Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center not to send her home.
She had driven herself to the emergency room on March 27 with a fever of 102.6. Her whole body ached as hospital staffers in suits and face shields ushered her into an isolation unit, pumped fluids into her body through an IV and, after ruling out strep throat and the flu, tested her for the novel coronavirus.
It would take about two days for the test results to come back, but Kenna said the doctors told her there was an 80 percent chance she would test positive. Still, her temperature had fallen to 100, chest X-rays showed no signs of pneumonia, an ultrasound showed her daughter’s heartbeat was normal, and a walking test showed she had normal oxygen saturation levels, said Catherine Smith O’Neal, the hospital’s chief medical officer, who reviewed Kenna’s medical records with her permission.
The doctor called Kenna’s obstetrician, and after going over her exams and vital signs, wrote in Kenna’s medical chart that he was “not concerned with the patient’s levels at this time.” He told her he thought she could fight the virus from home.
Given her age and test results, Kenna was not considered a high-risk covid-19 patient. But she was also a pregnant woman with diabetes and hypertension in a state with one of the country’s worst maternal mortality rates, especially for black mothers.
“I’m just not comfortable going home, the way I’m feeling,” Kenna remembers replying.
But he assured her it would be safe. Drink plenty of fluids, he advised, follow up with your primary-care doctor, and come back if the symptoms get any worse.
“There is just nothing about her exam that says, ‘You’re not going to recover from this like all of the other 20- and 30-year-olds who we see,’ ” said O’Neal, an infectious-disease specialist. “We have seen pregnant women, and that doesn’t seem to affect how they go. So while we always worry about pregnancy more, that doesn’t portend a worse outcome in this disease. She met our criteria for discharge with close monitoring, which is what she got.”
A nurse offered to help her out in a wheelchair. Kenna refused. She walked to her car, angry and scared, crying through the 15-minute drive home.
She and her daughters were living with her mother, Donna Montgomery. They’d been through some difficult times.
Less than two years earlier, Darrielle’s father had been shot and killed outside his Baton Rouge home. An article about his unsolved killing hung on a memory wall above the teenager’s bed. Across the hallway were photos of Kenna’s father, who had died in 2017 after falling into a diabetic coma on his 67th birthday.
Kenna now worried about her Type 2 diabetes as she grew weaker, struggling to breathe. Her pregnancy, with a former partner she was still on good terms with, had been a surprise. She’d just been promoted to shift lead for a contractor at the Shell plant, which makes catalysts used to refine crude oil into gasoline or diesel fuel. She was saving money to buy a house for her and the girls.
The virus was threatening all of that. By the time the hospital called with her positive test results on March 29, her chest felt like it was going to cave in. Her sister, Cindy Allen-Wilson, who lives down the street, had also started feeling sick, and later tested positive for the coronavirus as well.
By April 1, Kenna was unable to climb out of her mother’s bathtub, next to the second-floor bedroom where she had been isolated for nearly a week. She feared dying up there alone, while her children were downstairs and her mother was at work. She called her OB/GYN’s nurse, Tammy Farrow, who had been checking in with her every day.
“Sometimes, being strong is admitting you need help,” the nurse told her. Kenna called her mother, who rushed home from her job cleaning office buildings.
As Donna was helping her daughter down the stairs, Kenna collapsed in her arms. She called 911.
From a room at Woman’s Hospital, where she’d been taken by the ambulance, Kenna sent her mom, sister and brother-in-law a goodbye text: “I did my best ya’ll I’m sorry.”
“Don’t give up,” her mom responded.
“Fight,” her sister urged.
Forty-eight hours later, she was placed on a ventilator.
An unknowing delivery
Kenna pulled at the breathing tube down her throat, fighting against the machine as it pushed air into her lungs. The ventilator would buy her time, doctors hoped, sending oxygen to her brain, her heart, her kidneys, her baby.
At 21 weeks, time was what the baby needed most. Every day mattered, every ounce of weight essential to her chance at breathing with her own miniature lungs. Every few hours, the nurses listened to the baby’s heart, making sure it was still beating.
Tammy knew that Kenna was heavily sedated. But the nurse sent her a text message anyway, hoping she would someday see it.
“Praying God puts his mighty healing hands upon you today and everyday,” she texted her, “and that you feel his presence mightily.”
Her mother was also texting her prayers. “Lord heal my daughters body in Jesus name,” Donna wrote.
On the morning of April 6, Donna’s phone rang.
A few hours earlier, a nurse had entered her daughter’s room to find Kenna’s baby under the covers.
Her womb had contracted, but the ventilator and medications had masked any signs of labor. Kenna had delivered her child without knowing it. The baby was born a day short of 22 weeks, the hospital later said, before most doctors consider a human life viable.
She weighed 14 ounces and stretched 10 inches long, so small her mother could have held her with one hand. The time stamp on her birth certificate would be 3:42 a.m. but no one would ever know exactly when she had arrived.
Almost as quickly as she had entered the world, she left it.
“Like most pregnancies that end at this gestational age, the condition is critical and not compatible with life,” Barbara Griffith, president of Woman’s Hospital, said in a statement.
Kenna’s baby would ultimately test negative for the coronavirus, adding to limited research suggesting the virus is not easily transmitted from mother to fetus. But she lived long enough to take at least one breath and record a heartbeat. Under Louisiana law, that meant the coroner would be required to issue a death certificate. The time of death was 4:50 a.m.
Just hours after the hospital called Donna, East Baton Rouge Parish Coroner Beau Clark shared the news of the “tragic case” during a news briefing on Facebook Live. Without naming Kenna, he announced the first covid-related death of a baby in Louisiana and one of the first in the country. Only a few other reports of infant deaths had emerged in connection to the coronavirus, including in Illinois and Connecticut, but the causes of death in those cases remained unclear.
Clark’s announcement prompted expectant mothers across Louisiana to call their doctors and nurses, in fear of what the pandemic could mean for their pregnancies.
On Snapchat, Darrielle’s cousin sent her an image of a TV news segment, wondering whether the coroner was talking about her mother. The 15-year-old hadn’t even known her mom was on a ventilator.
It was the second time she’d learned devastating news about her family from social media. In 2018, she found out about her father’s murder from a news report. Now she’d discovered the death of her little sister in the same way.
“I showed my grandmother ... and I was like ‘for real?’ ” Darrielle said. “You didn’t tell me?”
Her mother remained sedated on the ventilator, unaware that the nurses had placed her baby on her chest for a moment before taking her away.
After the baby’s death, Kenna was given remdesivir, the antiviral drug that has had positive effects on some covid-19 patients. It was in short supply at that time, but doctors were able to get an overnight shipment from California.
In the days that followed, Kenna’s lungs began to improve. And on April 14, after nearly two weeks on the ventilator, she started to wake up. She was still heavily sedated once the ventilator was removed, barely able to speak or move. She wouldn’t remember what the doctors told her at her bedside that first day, or what she said to her mother and friends as they cheered and cried over the phone at the sound of her frail voice.
The following morning, her friend Lakeshia Septs called her, anxious to hear how she was doing. But Kenna sounded confused, and asked Lakeshia if she could come to the hospital to see the new baby. Lakeshia froze, not knowing what to say. Did Kenna not know what had happened?
Lakeshia phoned Kenna’s mother, who asked the doctors and nurses to wait for Donna to be there to tell Kenna about the baby. But the message didn’t make it to a social worker who walked into Kenna’s room later that day and gave her a form from the coroner’s office, along with a pamphlet about grief.
“What is this?” Kenna asked.
“Your baby made national news,” the woman said. “You didn’t see?”
After the social worker was gone, Kenna pulled out her phone and searched: “first baby to pass away covid related baton rouge.”
She cried alone as she read through the news article.
It had to be my baby, she thought.
She’d lost her child in a state with one of the highest infant mortality rates in the country, where black babies are more than twice as likely to die as white babies. The maternal mortality rate is the highest in the United States: Black women in Louisiana are more than two times as likely as white women to die of pregnancy-related complications. Yet Kenna, battling a virus killing thousands of black people, had survived — barely.
On her last day at the hospital, her nurses rolled her in a wheelchair up and down the hallways of two floors, as medical staff clapped and cheered. Kenna cupped her face in her hands, sobbing as her sister, daughters, cousins, aunts, nieces and friends surprised her at the hospital entrance, screaming and holding signs with the words “You Made It” and “It was God’s Grace.” A nurse who was off work that day came to the hospital anyway, without her scrubs, to hug Kenna goodbye.
Then her sister and mother helped her into the passenger seat of the car, driving Kenna home without the baby she’d never met.
The baby she had named Treasure.
Donna untangled the strings of the Disney princess and Minnie Mouse balloons from Dollar Tree on a May afternoon, handing them out to relatives.
“These were all the balloons they had,” Donna said. “Mother’s Day took all of them.”
Kenna picked one with a crown and the word “Princess,” and leaned against the couch in the dimly lit living room, beneath a yellow banner with a photo of Kenna and the words “WELCOME HOME WE LOVE YOU.”
She’d been home from the hospital for three weeks, but could still hardly walk. She spent most of her days on the couch or in bed, coughing and fighting migraines. Her doctors said it could take up to six months to fully recover. But now she felt strong enough to slowly limp out to the driveway on her own, to remember the baby she had not yet been able to fully grieve.
“Can I write on the balloon?” said E’lajah, who had celebrated her eighth birthday while her mother was in the hospital. “How do you spell ‘sister’?”
On the princess balloon, in blue marker, Kenna wrote: “I wanted you here but God need you more. It’s ok we’ll meet again soon.” Then she joined the circle of family and friends in the grass beneath the oak tree, the same place where just two months earlier she had learned she was having a baby girl.
“Alright ya’ll, we’re going to get started,” Donna said, telling each person to go around the circle and say a few words for Kenna and Treasure.
“Kenna, we love you,” her sister, Cindy, said. “I know you would’ve been a good mom."
“My little sister, you’re always going to be in my heart,” E’lajah said. “Even though I never got to see you, I’m pretty sure you’re a beautiful angel.”
“Kenna, we know you had a long road,” her brother-in-law, Scott Wilson, said. “Just keep on pushing.”
They each released a balloon into the sky, watching it float past the tree’s branches.
Waiting to go last, Kenna toyed with the white strings, wrapping them around her bright green fingernails as she thought about what to say. She’d hardly spoken about Treasure since coming home. She hadn’t looked through the flash drive of photos from the hospital, or the box of white embroidered linens given to every mom who loses a baby. She had only managed a glance at the pink card with her daughter’s footprints, and the words “A Tiny Treasure.”
She had refused to go upstairs to the closet filled with bags of baby clothes — unicorn socks, rainbow bibs, onesies with words like “Sunshine” and “Happy Everyday.” Pink skirts and pink sweaters and even tiny pink hangers. She couldn’t bear to see any of it.
Kenna hoped to give the clothes to another family, one she heard about while she was still in the hospital. Another pregnant black woman had been hospitalized with her for covid-19. The woman, 31 years old and seven months pregnant, had also given birth prematurely. The baby survived, but the mother did not. A nurse later told Kenna that the woman, Ajoraica Parker, had been in the room next to hers.
Kenna thought about Parker as she stood in the grass, holding her bundle of four balloons. That could have been her, she told her relatives.
“I’m glad that I made it, though in the process I lost my baby,” Kenna said. “I think about her all day, every day. I have so many questions of why. Why me? Why her?”
Her sister put her hand on Kenna’s back, filming her speaking on her iPhone. Tears streamed down Kenna’s face.
“I want my baby back,” Kenna said. “I know that’s not going to happen. I know God is going to take care of her best.”
Then she kissed the Minnie Mouse balloon, touching the strings once more before releasing all four balloons into the sky. She watched as they split apart above the trees, drifting off.
‘I want a baby sister’
“Ya’ll can have a seat,” a woman in a mask said as Kenna limped over to a brown leather couch next to a grandfather clock. With her mother across from her, Kenna sat with her arms wrapped over her stomach, waiting for her baby’s ashes. The funeral director walked in, holding a blue bag.
“This is everything, right here,” he said, gently handing it to Kenna.
From the blue bag she pulled out three boxes. Inside two of them were lockets, one silver and one gold, each around its own chain. The third white box, sealed tightly shut, contained the rest of the baby’s remains, the funeral director told her.
“Thank you,” Kenna said. The funeral director held the door for them on their way out.
As her mother drove home, Kenna sat silently in the back seat, scrolling through the posts on her Facebook timeline, videos from her weeks in the hospital. She held the blue bag in her lap as she looked out the window, past a cemetery, past a long line for the drive-through at Checkers, past a clinic where a group of health-care workers were taking a group photo outside, next to a sign that read “Heroes work here.” The only sound in the car was her mother’s soul music radio station, 106.5.
When they got home, Kenna sat down on the couch next to E’lajah.
Donna turned the light on and took the silver necklace out of its box, untangling the chain. E’lajah looked at the locket, engraved with footprints and the words “Mommy of an Angel.”
“Something inside that?” E’lajah asked.
“Treasure,” her mother said.
The 8-year-old’s eyes widened. “Her body?”
Kenna nodded. E’lajah ran her hands over the box for one of the lockets. She went to the kitchen and grabbed a pencil, asking her mother if she could write on the container, and how to spell her sister’s name.
Sitting next to her, Kenna whispered the letters: “T-R-E-A-S-U-R-E,” as E’lajah wrote the name on the box, next to the words “We love you.”
“I want a baby sister,” the 8-year-old said to Kenna.
“I could buy you a baby doll?” Kenna said.
“I don’t want a baby doll,” E’lajah said. “I want a real life baby sister.”
She curled up next to her mother, under a fleece blanket.
“Alright, you ready?” Donna said, holding the locket.
She reached around Kenna’s neck and gently fastened the chain.