Tennis superstar and businesswoman Serena Williams opened up about her nearly-fatal childbirth experience in a new personal essay for Elle.
In the lengthy piece titled “How Serena Williams Saved Her Own Life,” Williams revealed that she dealt with severe complications after the emergency C-section birth of her daughter, Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr.
“I spent the night in the hospital with my baby in the room. When I woke up, she was nestled in my arms. The rest of my body was paralyzed. I couldn’t get out of bed because my legs were still numb,” she wrote.
The word-class athlete added that she previously suffered from blood clots in her lungs in the past and that she has been at risk of developing them again since then. However, doctors seemed to brush this fact off, so Williams made it her duty to press the issue and vouch for herself as a Black woman.
“Well, we don’t really know if that’s what you need to be on right now,” she recalled a nurse telling her after telling the medical professional that she should be taking medication to prevent clots from returning.
“No one was really listening to what I was saying. The logic for not starting the blood thinners was that it could cause my C-section wound to bleed, which is true. 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.”
Williams continued, saying that she began coughing very hard, and although the nurses and doctors told her to avoid it, she couldn’t help it. As such, her C-section stitches burst.
“I couldn’t breathe. I was coughing because I just couldn’t get enough air. 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.”
The 40-year-old said she felt like she was dying due to her surgery and the pain she experienced.
“I’m dying. I’m dying. Oh my God,” she recalled thinking to herself in the hospital.
Then, she requested a CAT scan from her nurse, who responded saying, “I think all this medicine is making you talk crazy,” but the Olympic gold medalist refused to back down.
“No, I’m telling you what I need: I need the scan immediately. And I need it to be done with dye,” Williams insisted. After receiving the CAT scan, it was revealed that she had a blood clot in her lungs, so she needed another surgery to break it up before it reached her heart.
Thankfully things worked out for the better, as she had successfully undergone four surgeries, including her C-section. In her essay, she mentioned that many Black women were not so lucky, as they were more likely to die during or after childbirth than their white peers.
“In the U.S., Black women are nearly three times more likely to die during or after childbirth than their white counterparts,” she said. “Many of these deaths are considered by experts to be preventable. Being heard and appropriately treated was the difference between life or death for me; I know those statistics would be different if the medical establishment listened to every Black woman’s experience.”
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, factors contributing to this startling truth include structural racism, variation in quality healthcare, underlying chronic conditions, and implicit bias. The finding was posted as a part of Black Maternal Health Week, recognized each year by CDC on Apr. 11-17 to “bring awareness to Black maternal health.”
Williams has also opened up about her near-death childbirth experience in another essay published on CNN in 2018.
“I almost died after giving birth to my daughter, Olympia,” she wrote. “Every mother, everywhere, regardless of race or background, deserves to have a healthy pregnancy and birth.”