Tennis superstar Serena Williams has opened up about her harrowing childbirth experience — and how “being heard and appropriately treated was the difference between life or death for me” — in a new essay for Elle.
According to Williams, who shares 4-year-old daughter Olympia with husband Alexis Ohanian, her pregnancy was largely uneventful. Though she won the Australian Open early on in her pregnancy, she otherwise enjoyed being able to take some time off from her rigorous schedule, and basked in the positive media attention her pregnancy brought about.
“I guess I’m one of those women who likes being pregnant; I enjoyed the positive attention. I’m used to getting negative attention from the press and critics, but this was different. I settled into a whole new way of being. I was relaxed not playing: My life was just sitting at home, and it was wonderful,” she wrote.
She even enjoyed the labor cramps, something many moms describe as being one of the hardest parts of delivery.
“It was great! I know that’s not what people are supposed to say, but I was enjoying it, the work of labor. I was completely in the moment. I loved the cramps. I loved feeling my body trying to push the baby out,” Williams, 40, shared.
But she began to feel more intense contractions the morning after being induced. Though Williams wanted to deliver her first child vaginally, the baby’s fluctuating heart rate prompted her doctor to order a C-section. Olympia was born on Sept. 1, 2017.
“The doctor walked in, looked at me, and said, ‘We’re giving you a C-section,'” she wrote. “She made it clear that there wasn’t time for an epidural or more pushing. I loved her confidence; had she given me the choice between more pushing or surgery, I would have been ruined.”
After surgery, Williams asked a nurse when she would start her heparin drip, a blood thinner used to prevent blood clots. The tennis star is at high risk for blood clots and has previously had life-threatening clots in her lungs. The nurse told Williams she wasn’t sure if that was needed, but Williams knew her body and continued to insist upon the drip as she lay in immense pain.
“No one was really listening to what I was saying … 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,” she said.
Then she began to cough, experiencing “racking, full-body ordeals” that sent “sharp pains” to her C-section wound each time she coughed. Williams knew that coughing could compromise her stitches, but she could not stop, feeling like she couldn’t get enough air. Eventually, her stitches burst, resulting in another surgery. This, unfortunately, would be the beginning of a series of post-delivery complications for the athlete.
“Little did I realize that this would be the first of many surgeries. I wasn’t coughing for nothing; I was coughing because I had an embolism, a clot in one of my arteries,” she shared in her essay. “The doctors would also discover a hematoma, a collection of blood outside the blood vessels, in my abdomen, then even more clots that had to be kept from traveling to my lungs.”
Following her second surgery, Williams felt like she might actually die.
“When I woke up from that surgery, in the hospital room with my parents and my in-laws, I felt like I was dying. They were trying to talk to me, and all I could think was, ‘I’m dying, I’m dying. Oh my God.’ I really thought I would faint,” she said.
Despite her current state, Williams still mustered up the strength to advocate for herself yet again.
“I spoke to the nurse. I told her: ‘I need to have a CAT scan of my lungs bilaterally, and then I need to be on my heparin drip,'” she said.
The nurse dismissed her concerns as “crazy” talk, but Williams refused to let it go, a decision that likely saved her life.
“Finally, the nurse called my doctor, and she listened to me and insisted we check. I fought hard, and I ended up getting the CAT scan. I’m so grateful to her. Lo and behold, I had a blot clot in my lungs, and they needed to insert a filter into my veins to break up the clot before it reached my heart,” said Williams.
While she ultimately did get her CAT scan and the clot was stopped before it could reach her heart, Williams knows she should not have had to fight to have her concerns addressed. Her experience has also been held up as an example that even some biggest names in the world can’t escape the harrowing realities of implicit biases in the medical field.
Black women are almost three times more likely to die after childbirth than white women, and many of these deaths are believed to be preventable.
“I know those statistics would be different if the medical establishment listened to every Black woman’s experience,” wrote Williams.