Living tennis legend Serena Williams, in an op-ed essay penned for CNN, opened up about her life-threatening experience giving birth and called for readers to address racial inequities in maternal care.
In the op-ed, published Tuesday, Williams writes that she almost died giving birth to her daughter, Olympia Ohanian. Olympia was born on Sept. 1, 2017.
The pregnancy was smooth, Williams says, but 24 hours after she gave birth, a slew of complications kept the new mother in bed for nearly six weeks.
It began with a pulmonary embolism, which is a condition in which one or more arteries in the lungs becomes blocked by a blood clot. Because of my medical history with this problem, I live in fear of this situation. So, when I fell short of breath, I didn’t wait a second to alert the nurses.
This sparked a slew of health complications that I am lucky to have survived. First my C-section wound popped open due to the intense coughing I endured as a result of the embolism. I returned to surgery, where the doctors found a large hematoma, a swelling of clotted blood, in my abdomen. And then I returned to the operating room for a procedure that prevents clots from traveling to my lungs. When I finally made it home to my family, I had to spend the first six weeks of motherhood in bed.
Williams acknowledges that in her ordeal, she had privileges not afforded to many: a strong, committed team of doctors and nurses and state-of-the-art equipment, for instance. Had it not been for their able care, Williams writes, she may have died.
But the point of telling her story, which she also shared in an earlier interview for Vogue’s February issue, was to illustrate the vast discrepancies in maternal care that women from different races and backgrounds experience. Provoked by her near-death experience, Williams looked more deeply into inequity and maternal care, and was bothered by the lack of action.
“According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, black women in the United States are over three times more likely to die from pregnancy or childbirth-related causes,” Williams writes. She adds that outside the U.S., limited access to prenatal and maternal care means that millions of women have the cards similarly “stacked against them.”
As another CNN article notes, instances of maternal death have increased across racial groups in the U.S. in recent years, but the racial divide in deaths has persisted. The issue has been brought to the forefront recently as high-profile cases like the death of Shalon Irving, an expert on racial disparities in health care, and Williams’ complications have been reported and discussed.
At the end of her essay, Williams implores readers to demand action from governments, businesses and health care providers to protect the lives of babies and their mothers.
“In doing so, you become part of this narrative,” Williams writes, “making sure that one day, who you are or where you are from does not decide whether your baby gets to live or to die.”