Superstar athlete Serena Williams, like most Black women, seems like a superwoman: she won a tournament while pregnant, she bounced back from injury, she gave birth to a healthy baby, she went back to work on the court just weeks after…there’s no stopping this woman! Now, she’s the picture of happiness on the the cover of Vogue with her little one snuggled up next to her.
On the cover story, Williams talks about her new life as a mom and wife, her career ambitions and how motherhood almost took her life. Yes, you read that right.
In a terrifying episode, after an emergency C-section, Williams encountered what is an often fatal complication: Blood clots. She also had to fight to be taken seriously, Vogue reports:
Though she had an enviably easy pregnancy, what followed was the greatest medical ordeal of a life that has been punctuated by them. Olympia was born by emergency C-section after her heart rate dove dangerously low during contractions. The surgery went off without a hitch; Alexis cut the cord, and the wailing newborn fell silent the moment she was laid on her mother’s chest. “That was an amazing feeling,” Serena remembers. “And then everything went bad.”
The next day, while recovering in the hospital, Serena suddenly felt short of breath. Because of her history of blood clots, and because she was off her daily anticoagulant regimen due to the recent surgery, she immediately assumed she was having another pulmonary embolism. (Serena lives in fear of blood clots.) She walked out of the hospital room so her mother wouldn’t worry and told the nearest nurse, between gasps, that she needed a CT scan with contrast and IV heparin (a blood thinner) right away. The nurse thought her pain medicine might be making her confused. But Serena insisted, and soon enough a doctor was performing an ultrasound of her legs. “I was like, a Doppler? I told you, I need a CT scan and a heparin drip,” she remembers telling the team. The ultrasound revealed nothing, so they sent her for the CT, and sure enough, several small blood clots had settled in her lungs. Minutes later she was on the drip. “I was like, listen to Dr. Williams!”
That’s right, if it doesn’t feel right to you, speak up! It was only hours after giving birth through a major surgery, Williams had to convince the medical staff that she was in need of care. Though she survived, Williams became one of the estimated 150,000 women in America to experience serious illness or near-death experiences around pregnancy every year. Because her history of blood clots made her aware of the symptoms, Williams was able to save her own life.
And the stats for Black women and pregnancy are worse! Even after considering other known risk factors — such as diabetes, hypertension and kidney problems — researchers found that African-Americans still experienced a higher rate of deep vein thrombosis or blood clotting.
“The bottom line is this is not just because this population is sicker or less compliant, but there is something else there that needs to be explored,” said Ron Waksman, M.D., the study’s lead author.
In the study, African-American patients were nearly three times as likely to experience clotting as non-African-American patients. African-Americans’ clotting rates compared to non-African Americans were: