Skip to main content

If you scroll through Serena Williams’ Instagram, you’re sure to see pictures of her and her daughter in matching outfits. The Wimbledon legend once quipped that she and Olympia are “not spending a day apart until she’s eighteen”.

Chances are that you’ll likely brush Williams’ comments off as a new mom worries. However, the truth is that bringing her daughter into the world almost cost Serena Williams her life. In recounting the harrowing experience, Williams also sheds light on the unfortunate reality of poor black maternal health.

Serena Williams’ Near-Death Child Birth Experience

In an effort to raise awareness for Black Maternal Health Week, which is observed from April 11 through April 17, Serena Williams penned a personal essay, for the April issue of US Elle, in which she opened up about not only the complications she faced during childbirth but also how the dismissals from medical staff almost cost her her life.

After a pregnancy, which she describes as a “wonderful pregnancy [in which] my focus narrowed to keeping myself healthy for the baby”, Williams found herself in labor, “The contractions were coming harder and faster. With each one, my baby’s heart rate plummeted.”

Due to the potential health complications, a decision was then made for her to have an emergency C-section.

Serena Williams | Longevity LIVE
serenawilliams/instagram

Following the procedure, Williams’ moment with her new daughter was short-lived as she realized that there was something going on with her body, 

“The rest of my body was paralyzed. I couldn’t get out of bed because my legs were still numb.”

She began to experience symptoms of blood clots

Following a 2010 inside in which blood clots were found in her lungs, Williams knew she was at risk for them. As such, she then repeatedly asked a nurse about receiving a herapin drip – a preventative blood thinner. Unfortunately, Williams was dismissed several times by nurses – that was until she began to violently and uncontrollably cough,

“The nurses warned me that coughing might burst my stitches, but I couldn’t help it. The coughs became racking, full-body ordeals. Every time I coughed, sharp pains shot through my wound.”

Eventually, her stitches burst, and she had to have another surgery to restore them. Following three more C-section-related surgeries, Williams once again asked for assistance. She asked for a CAT scan of her lungs so that they could understand why she needed a heparin drip.

The nurse’s response?

“I think all this medicine is making you talk crazy.” 

Despite this, Williams persisted, and eventually, her doctor was called and a CAT scan was performed. The results were, shocking, to say the least,

“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.”

As for what was causing the coughing fit?

I was coughing because I had an embolism, a clot in one of my arteries.
The doctors would also discover 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.

serenawilliams/instagram

Thankfully, after the fourth emergency surgery, Williams’ clots were successfully removed and her life was saved. However, upon reflection, it’s hard to ignore the fact that if her pleas weren’t heard, her daughter would have grown up not knowing her,

“Because of what I went through, it would be really difficult if I didn’t have the healthcare that I have – and to imagine all the other women that do go through that without the same healthcare, without the same response, it’s upsetting,” Williams told the BBC.

The state of black maternal healthcare

As harrowing as Williams’ experience was, her story is unfortunately not uncommon. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), black women are three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women. In the United Kingdom, black women are four times more likely to die in pregnancy and childbirth than white women.

Unconscious and racial bias in the medical world

As women get older, birth outcomes get worse. … If that happens in the 40s for white women, it actually starts to happen for African-American women in their 30s.”Michael Lu, a disparities researcher and former head of the Maternal and Child Health Bureau of Health Resources and Services Administration

A survey was conducted by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. 33% of black women revealed that they had personally been discriminated against because of their race when going to a doctor or health clinic. 21% of them went on to say that they avoid going to a doctor or seeking health care out of concern they would be racially discriminated against.

“Doctors aren’t listening to us, just to be quite frank,” Serena Williams said to BBC,

“…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.”

black maternal
Photo by A&C PHOTOS

Discrimination fuels stressful aging

Weathering is a term coined by Arline Geronimus, a professor at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. The word describes the effect that stress can have on the body. Weathering can speed up aging, including on a molecular level.

According to a study led by Geronimus herself, black women experience stress-related accelerated biological aging. The findings show the telomeres (markers of aging) of black women in their 40s and 50s were 7 1/2 years older on average than those of whites. So what does this all have to do with pregnancy complications?

Well, living in a world wrought with both racial and gender inequalities is sure to raise your stress levels. What’s more, stress can have a significant effect on your health, especially if you’re pregnant. In fact, one of the most common stress-related complications during pregnancy is preterm birth and high blood pressure (preeclampsia).

According to research, black women not only have the highest age-adjusted prevalence of preeclampsia, but around 14% of Black women have premature births compared with 9% of white women.

What can we do?

To address black maternal mortality rates, the CDC has a few recommendations on how to target factors that contribute to pregnancy-related complications and death.

For pregnant individuals and their families
  • Talk to a healthcare provider if anything doesn’t feel right or is concerning.
  • Be aware of any warning signs. These include:
    • severe headache
    • extreme swelling of hands or face
    • trouble breathing
    • heavy vaginal bleeding or discharge
    • Overwhelming tiredness
      These symptoms could indicate a potentially life-threatening complication.
  • Make sure to document and share pregnancy history during each medical care visit for up to a year after delivery.
  • Maintain ongoing healthcare as well as social support systems before, during, as well as after pregnancy.
  • Speak out if you recognize unconscious bias (“I think it’s important to speak up loud and clear and say: ‘No, this isn’t right. Treat me the same way that you’re treating [someone else],” says Serena Williams.)
Photo by SHVETS production from Pexels
Healthcare providers:
  • Always ask questions so that you can better understand patients and things that may be affecting their lives.
  • Listen to your patients and address any concerns they may have.
  • Help patients, and those around them, understand the urgent maternal warning signs as well as what to do.
  • Recognize and confront unconscious bias in yourself and those around you.
  • Help patients manage their chronic conditions or conditions that may arise during pregnancy.
  • Provide all patients with respectful care.
Hospitals and healthcare systems:
  • Identify, address and confront unconscious bias in healthcare.
  • Standardize coordination of care and response to emergencies.
  • Improve delivery of quality prenatal and postpartum care.
  • Train non-obstetric care providers to ask about pregnancy history in the preceding year.
States and communities:
  • Assess and coordinate delivery hospitals for risk-appropriate care.
  • Support review of the causes behind every maternal death.
  • Identify and address social factors influencing maternal health such as unstable housing, transportation access, food insecurity, substance use, violence, and racial and economic inequality.

MAIN IMAGE CREDIT:serenawilliams/instagram

References

Geronimus, A. T., Hicken, M. T., Pearson, J. A., Seashols, S. J., Brown, K. L., & Cruz, T. D. (2010). Do US Black Women Experience Stress-Related Accelerated Biological Aging?: A Novel Theory and First Population-Based Test of Black-White Differences in Telomere Length. Human nature (Hawthorne, N.Y.)21(1), 19–38. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12110-010-9078-0

Pie Mulumba

Pie Mulumba

Pie Mulumba is a beauty and wellness writer who has a passion for poetry, equality, natural hair, and skin-care. With a journalism degree from Pearson's Institute of Higher Education, and identifiable by either her large afro or colorful locks, Pie aspires to continuously provide the latest information, be it beauty or wellness, on how one can adopt a healthy lifestyle on a day-to-day basis.

The content in this editorial is for general information only and is not intended to provide medical or other professional advice. For more information on your medical condition and treatment options, speak to your healthcare professional.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.