In a new essay, the tennis star exposed how she almost fell victim to a system that dismisses Black women.
Serena Williams is boldly doing what many mothers are shamed out of doing: telling her birth story. And she’s doing so to spread awareness of the difficulty women, especially Black women, have navigating the healthcare system. The tennis star penned a powerful essay excerpted in Elle —adapted from the new anthology Arrival Stories: Women Share Their Experiences of Becoming Mothers — in which she details what went from an enjoyable pregnancy, to an intense birthing experience, to a nightmare with near-deadly consequences after her baby was delivered via emergency c-section.
Historically, women are less believed by medical professionals on everything from their pain levels to what they’re experiencing psychologically, and they’re often dismissed as a result. Harvard reported in 2017 that while women statistically experience chronic pain in higher numbers, most pain studies are done on men. The word hysteria even derives from the Greek word for uterus, linguistically linking women’s pain to hysterics. And it’s even worse for Black women, who — as Williams noted in her essay — are almost three times more likely to die during or after childbirth as white women. Medical racism is real, and Williams was almost a casualty of a backwards, deadly system. “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,” she wrote of her experience.
Williams recounts being diagnosed with almost fatal blood clots in her lungs in 2010, an ordeal that made her hyper aware of the possibility that life-threatening clots could return. So, after her c-section surgery, she knew she needed to address potential clotting and make sure appropriate measures were being taken. After being dismissed, Williams underwent a series of surgeries, initially to repair her c-section wound after intense and painful coughing that caused her stitches to burst. Ultimately, doctors identified a blood clot in one of her arteries and an abdominal hematoma — but she still wasn’t getting the care that she knew she needed.
“In the other room, 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, ‘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 guess I said the name of the dye wrong, and she told me I just needed to rest. But I persisted: ‘I’m telling you, this is what I need.’ 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 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.”
After four surgeries, Williams finally stabilized and was given the heparin drip she knew she needed to begin with. Ironically, she relayed that her female OBGYN was not dismissive, and was “amazing,” but that the male doctor who was supposed to be checking on her in the hospital was only ever present once. Williams writes, “Being heard and appropriately treated was the difference between life or death for me; I know those statistics [on Black women dying after childbirth] would be different if the medical establishment listened to every Black woman’s experience.” Arrival Stories, which was curated by Amy Schumer and Christy Turlington Burns, is available now.