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Ahead of Black Maternal Health Week, Serena Williams details the series of complications and dismissals that almost ended her life.
Awareness of the Black maternal health crisis has risen in recent years, but progress in preventing Black maternal morbidity or major complications during childbirth has unfortunately been much slower.
While several politicians—including Vice President Kamala Harris—have lobbied to highlight racial disparities in maternal health in hope of improving outcomes, Black mothers remain three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications than their white counterparts, according to the CDC.
As the CDC also makes clear, most of those complications are preventable.
But the disparities aren’t just issues of access or economics. Several Black women with high profiles and incomes have revealed their own dangerous birthing experiences, including Beyoncé and 23-time Grand Slam-winning tennis player Serena Williams, who recently revisited her harrowing 2018 birthing and postpartum experiences in an essay for Elle magazine.
“I’ve suffered every injury imaginable, and I know my body,” Williams writes in the deeply personal essay, later adding: “Giving birth to my baby, it turned out, was a test for how loud and how often I would have to call out before I was finally heard.”
As Williams recounts, she had a “wonderful pregnancy” with her first child, Alexis Olympia, and even her epidural-free delivery was going well—at first.
“By the next morning, the contractions were coming harder and faster. With each one, my baby’s heart rate plummeted. I was scared,” Williams writes, explaining: “Every time the baby’s heart rate dropped, the nurses would come in and tell me to turn onto my side. The baby’s heart rate would go back up and everything seemed fine. I’d have another contraction, and baby’s heart rate would drop again, but I’d turn over and the rate would go back up, and so on and so forth.”
Before long, it was clear Williams would need an emergency C-section, which she took in stride. “I thought to myself, ‘I’ve had so many surgeries, what’s another one?’ ” she recalls. “Being an athlete is so often about controlling your body, wielding its power, but it’s also about knowing when to surrender.”
However, Williams’ postpartum experience would find her fighting for her life. Already aware of her high risk for blood clots following a near-fatal 2010 scare, Williams asked a nurse if she should be placed on the blood thinner heparin.
“The response was, ‘Well, we don’t really know if that’s what you need to be on right now,'” she recounts. “No one was really listening to what I was saying…Still, I felt it was important and kept pressing. All the while, I was in excruciating pain. I couldn’t move at all—not my legs, not my back, nothing.”
There was no relief in sight. Instead, Williams began coughing uncontrollably, putting her stitches at risk of bursting.
“I couldn’t breathe. I was coughing because I just couldn’t get enough air,” she writes. “I grabbed a towel, rolled it up, and put it over my incision. Sure enough, I was hacking so hard that my stitches burst. I went into my first surgery after the C-section to get restitched.”
Three more surgeries would follow, as it was eventually discovered Williams had a clot in one of her arteries (also known as an embolism), a hematoma in her abdomen, and several more clots that could easily prove fatal if not caught. “That’s what the medical report says, anyway. To me, it was just a fog of surgeries, one after another,” says Williams.
But her complications were almost missed. When Williams, having experienced blood clots before, again asked for heparin as well as a CAT scan of her lungs, a nurse dismissed her pleas.
“She said, ‘I think all this medicine is making you talk crazy.’ I said, ‘No, I’m telling you what I need: I need the scan immediately…I’m telling you, this is what I need.’ ”
Williams “fought hard” to be heard, and a doctor would soon confirm her fears were legitimate, as she had a blood clot in her lungs that needed to be quickly dissolved before it reached her heart.
Even after surviving the ordeal, Williams was so weak she “couldn’t walk down the driveway.” She would ultimately make a full recovery and make it back to the court, but the experience made her an ardent advocate for and investor in Black maternal health.
In fact, her Elle essay is just the latest recounting her near-death experience; since 2018, Williams has continued to be transparent about how becoming a first-time parent almost cost her her life. As we approach Black Maternal Health Week from April 11-17, her essay is a cogent reminder that the fight for the lives of Black expectant mothers is far from over.
“Being heard and appropriately treated was the difference between life or death for me,” Williams writes in Elle. “I know those statistics would be different if the medical establishment listened to every Black woman’s experience.
Read Serena Williams’ essay in its entirety in Elle‘s April issue.
Maiysha Kai is Lifestyle Editor of theGrio, covering all things Black and beautiful. Her work is informed by two decades’ experience in fashion and entertainment, a love of great books and aesthetics, and the indomitable brilliance of Black culture. She is also a Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter and editor of the YA anthology Body (Words of Change series).
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