Black women are three times more likely to die in childbirth than white women — and as Serena Williams discovered when she gave birth to her daughter Olympia in 2017, power, money, and being one of the greatest athletes who ever lived can’t even cancel out the racial bias behind that statistic.
This week, Williams shared her story in her own words over at Elle, and the essay is a must-read not only for anyone who loves the tennis champ, but for anyone who wants to better understand racism and privilege in the delivery room. In her own words, Williams talks about her pregnancy with her daughter Olympia and the complications that followed after the c-section delivery.
“My body has belonged to tennis for so long. I gripped my first racket at age 3 and played my first pro game at 14. The sport has torn me up: I’ve rolled my ankles, busted my knees, played with a taped-up Achilles heel, and quit midgame from back spasms. I’ve suffered every injury imaginable, and I know my body,” she opens the essay.
Despite this intimate kinesthetic self-knowledge, Williams was dismissed when she brought up some questions following the c-section delivery of her daughter, Olympia, in September 2017.
“In 2010, I learned I had blood clots in my lungs—clots that, had they not been caught in time, could have killed me. Ever since then, I’ve lived in fear of them returning. It wasn’t a one-off; I’m at high risk for blood clots,” she writes.
“I asked a nurse, “When do I start my heparin drip? Shouldn’t I be on that now?” Herapin is an anticoagulant that Williams was familiar with because, again, she had experience with blood clots and knows her own body.
“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.”
When Williams started coughing — another sign of an embolism — nurses chided her, saying she might burst her stitches. When the doctors went to resew a stitch that did burst, they found “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.”
What followed was a host of surgeries that left Williams feeling like she was dying. She spoke to a nurse — again — saying exactly what she needed, fearing that she had an embolism.
“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. And I need it to be done with dye.’... I persisted: ‘I’m telling you, this is what I need.’
After fighting for her own treatment, Williams got the treatment and CAT scan she requested. “Lo and behold, I had a blood clot in my lungs, and they needed to insert a filter into my veins to break up the clot before it reached my heart.”
She went through several more surgeries. Her husband ended up staying and showering at the hospital because Williams was going into surgery so frequently. All because medical professionals refused to listen to a professional athlete whose job it is to literally know their own body about what her body needed.
It shouldn’t even have to be qualified with the fact Williams is a professional athlete — women, especially Black women, are often ignored or dismissed when they advocate for themselves in the doctor’s office.
“Many of these deaths are considered by experts to be preventable,” Williams continues. “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.”