Serena Williams Says Her ‘Life or Death’ Childbirth Experience Required 4 Surgeries
Serena Williams opened up about a terrifying experience no person giving birth should have to go through. In a new essay for Elle, the legendary tennis player discussed how giving birth to her daughter Olympia, who is now four years old, led to potentially life-threatening complications.
When Williams went into labor in 2017, Olympia’s heart rate plummeted as the contractions increased in frequency and severity. “I was scared,” Williams recalled. But after 20 minutes of deliberation, her doctor determined that she would be having a C-section, as there was not enough time to safely deliver the baby without one.
“I’m not good at making decisions. In that moment, what I needed most was that calm, affirmative direction,” Williams wrote. “Since it was my first child, I really wanted to have the baby vaginally, but I thought to myself, I’ve had so many surgeries, what’s another one? Being an athlete is so often about controlling your body, wielding its power, but it’s also about knowing when to surrender.”
The experience that followed was one that changed her life forever. “I’ve learned to dust myself off after defeat, to stand up for what matters at any cost, to call out for what’s fair—even when it makes me unpopular. 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,” Williams wrote.
She is referring to a health complication that occurred shortly after she gave birth. After her C-section, Williams asked her nurses whether she should be put on blood thinners as she had a history of being “at high risk for blood clots”—but she was dismissed. “No one was really listening to what I was saying,” Williams recalled. She persisted, pushing for the blood thinners. She was in “excruciating pain” and was unable to move her legs or her back, and was then seized by “full-body” coughs, unable to get enough air. These coughs caused the stitches on her C-section wound to rupture, and she had to go into surgery.
Post-operation, she pressed to get a CAT scan of her lungs and to be put on heparin (a drug that helps prevent blood clots), but her nurse again dismissed her, saying the medicine Williams had taken was making her “talk crazy.” Fortunately, she persisted: “No, I’m telling you what I need: I need the scan immediately,” Williams recalled telling the nurse. Her doctor thankfully took her concerns seriously—and her fears were eventually confirmed. “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. That’s what the medical report says, anyway. To me, it was just a fog of surgeries, one after another.” Williams wrote.
Over one week, Williams underwent four back-to-back operations, including the C-section. She admits she might not be alive had she not advocated for her health, emphasizing that the type of dismissal she endured is one Black people encounter far too often. “In the U.S., Black women are nearly three times more likely to die during or after childbirth than their white counterparts,” Williams wrote, a figure that is supported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “I know those statistics would be different if the medical establishment listened to every Black woman’s experience.”
Related: 8 Ways We Can Actually Reduce Black Maternal Mortality
Williams has won 23 Grand Slam titles during her iconic career, but since becoming a mother, her priorities have understandably shifted. Or as she puts it, her body “switched allegiances.” Her daughter is now her focus while triumphing in tournaments has become more of a desire than a need. “I have a beautiful daughter at home; I still want the titles, the success, and the esteem, but it’s not my reason for waking up in the morning. There is more to teach her about this game than winning,” Williams wrote.
Despite her “seemingly endless” labor and her “body’s wreckage,” Williams still says she had “a wonderful pregnancy” and considers herself to be “one of those women who likes being pregnant.” Still, she recognizes that her path could have been very different had she not spoken up when it mattered the most: “Being heard and appropriately treated was the difference between life or death for me.”