The 23-time Grand Slam winner said the medical staff refused to listen to her when she warned something was wrong.
Tennis legend Serena Williams has opened up about her near-death experience during pregnancy. Williams recalled giving birth to her daughter Olympia via cesarean section in 2017, and realizing something was wrong. Being an elite athlete who took extreme care of her body and listened to every signal her body told her, she knew something was off when she coughed heavily. The nurse said it was nothing and urged her to not cough as her stitches would burst. “I was coughing because I just couldn’t get enough air,” recalled Williams in a powerful essay for Elle. “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.”
Williams had pushed her body to the limits on countless occasions over three decades and trusted what her body was telling her. After she was restitched, Williams felt like she was dying. She had experienced blood clot symptoms before and knew them, but when she told the nurse about it her concerns were brushed off. Williams refused to back down and insisted a CAT scan be taken and that she be put on blood thinners. “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,’” she recalled.
Williams demanded the nurse call the doctor, who recommended she get the CAT scan as well. “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,” she wrote. “I wasn’t coughing for nothing; I was coughing because I had an embolism, a clot in one of my arteries.” The doctors also discovered a hematoma—a collection of blood outside the blood vessels.
Serena Williams first spoke up about her pulmonary embolism in 2018 and said it was no coincidence that a Black woman was ignored. She considers herself lucky. “I had a wonderful, wonderful doctor. Unfortunately, a lot of African Americans and Black people don’t have the same experience that I’ve had,” she told the BBC. “Because of what I went through, it would be really difficult if I didn’t have the health care that I have―and to imagine all the other women that do go through that without the same health care, without the same response, it’s upsetting. I think there’s a lot of prejudging, absolutely, that definitely goes on. And it needs to be addressed.”
"In the U.S., Black women are nearly three times more likely to die during or after childbirth than their white counterparts. 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," she wrote.
Serena Williams is a long-time advocate for diversity, inclusivity and addressing the gender pay gap as well. When asked about the gender pay gap, she said, "You have to stand up and, I heard someone say, have conversations that aren't comfortable. Be comfortable with having uncomfortable conversations like we deserve to be paid what a guy does; we deserve to be treated fairly, the same way. How am I going to explain to my son that he is getting more? How am I going to explain to my daughter that she is getting less than my son? To me it's impossible to explain this," she said.