Serena Williams revealed that she came perilously close to losing her life after welcoming her baby girl, and had not doctors listened to her, the tennis icon would not be here today.
“So much of what happened after that is still a blur,” writes Serena Williams in Elle’s adaption from Arrival Stories: Women Share Their Experiences of Becoming Mothers. In the essay, Serena, 40, recalled the complications — and multiple surgeries — that followed the birth of her and husband Alexis Ohanian’s daughter, Olympia. “My husband left—to get food and shower back at the house—and this started a trend in which every time he’d try to leave, I’d wind up back in the operating room,” writes the tennis icon.
“I had to get a second surgery, and before he could get home, he had to come right back. 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,” writes Serena. “I got up somehow, and I went into the other room because I didn’t want my mom to worry. I didn’t want her to hear me; she’s the world’s biggest worrier.”
At first, Serena hoped to give birth to Olympia vaginally, since it was her first child. However, the doctors determined that the sports legend needed a C-Section, which Serena agreed to. (“I thought to myself, ‘I’ve had so many surgeries, what’s another one?’”). Afterward, Serena tore her stitches after coughing too hard. “Little did I realize that this would be the first of many surgeries,” she writes. “I wasn’t coughing for nothing; I was coughing because I had an embolism, a clot in one of my arteries.” During four surgeries, Serena’s doctors would find a hematoma – a collection of blood outside the blood vessels – in her abdomen.
Serena also recalled how she had to fight to get doctors to simply listen to her. In 2010, the tennis star learned she had blood clots in her lungs, which could have killed her if she didn’t catch them in time. While in the hospital following her baby’s birth, Serena argued with the nurse about how she needed a “CAT scar of my lungs bilaterally” and how she needed to be on a heparin drip. The nurse told Serena that “all this medicine is making you talk crazy,” which only frustrated her. Finally, the nurse called the doctor, who actually listened to Serena. “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,” writes Williams.
Had no one listened, Serena may not be here today. She underwent a fourth and final surgery for blood clots before recovering at home. “In the U.S., Black women are nearly three times more likely to die during or after childbirth than their white counterparts,” writes Williams. “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.”