Serena Williams — the trailblazing tennis legend whose rise to prominence inspired part of this year's Oscar-nominated film King Richard — could have died after giving birth in 2017.
As she explains in a new personal essay for Elle, the decorated athlete suffered serious complications following an emergency C-section to deliver her daughter, Olympia, whom Serena shares with her husband, Alexis Ohanian.
Treatment was delayed and might not have happened at all, she said, had Serena been less knowledgeable about her own medical needs and persistent during conversations with those responsible for her care.
"In 2010, I learned I had blood clots in my lungs — clots that, had they not been caught in time, could have killed me," Serena wrote. "Ever since then, I've lived in fear of them returning. It wasn't a one-off; I'm at high risk for blood clots."
So, when she failed to regain sensation in her legs after surgery and "may have passed out a few times" in the hospital, Serena started to ask questions. "I asked a nurse, 'When do I start my heparin drip? Shouldn't I be on that now?'" she recalled.
"The response was, 'Well, we don't really know if that's what you need to be on right now.' No one was really listening to what I was saying," she continued. "Still, I felt it was important and kept pressing."
Serena said she developed a cough shortly after and "was hacking so hard that [her] stitches burst," and she underwent the first of several additional surgeries "to get restitched."
"I wasn't coughing for nothing," she noted. "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."
The athlete said doctors only made these discoveries with Serena's insistence, as she was forced to shoulder the burden of determining her own medical course of action while those around her downplayed her concerns.
"I spoke to the nurse. 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,'" Serena wrote in the essay. "I said, 'No, I'm telling you what I need: I need the scan immediately. And I need it to be done with dye.'"
"I guess I said the name of the dye wrong, and she told me I just needed to rest. But I persisted: 'I'm telling you, this is what I need,'" she added. "Finally, the nurse called my doctor, and she listened to me and insisted we check. 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."
As Serena acknowledged in her essay, Black women in the US "are nearly three times more likely to die during or after childbirth than their white counterparts," and "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," said Serena. "I know those statistics would be different if the medical establishment listened to every Black woman's experience."