On Tuesday, ELLE published a piece written by legendary tennis player Serena Williams about how the 23-time Grand Slam champion “saved her own life” after giving birth to her first child. It’s a story about Black women knowing their own bodies and the medical experts who refuse to believe them. Black women all over the world know this story.
“In the U.S., Black women are nearly three times more likely to die during or after childbirth than their white counterparts,” Wiliams wrote. “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; I know those statistics would be different if the medical establishment listened to every Black woman’s experience.”
Williams is right, of course, and she offered up her experiences in the hospital as evidence.
First things first—Serena knows her body.
“My body has belonged to tennis for so long,” she wrote in ELLE. “I gripped my first racket at age 3 and played my first pro game at 14. The sport has torn me up: I’ve rolled my ankles, busted my knees, played with a taped-up Achilles heel, and quit midgame from back spasms. I’ve suffered every injury imaginable, and I know my body.”
Not only does Serena know her body, but she knows her medical history. In her editorial, she talked about how she learned in 2010 that she had blood clots in her lungs and that she is “at high risk for blood clots.” So after she gave birth in 2017 to her daughter, Olympia, via c-section, and she became concerned about her own physical condition, she asked a nurse a simple question.
“When do I start my heparin drip? Shouldn’t I be on that now?”
She said that the nurse responded, “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. The logic for not starting the blood thinners was that it could cause my C-section wound to bleed, which is true. Still, I felt it was important and kept pressing. All the while, I was in excruciating pain. I couldn’t move at all—not my legs, not my back, nothing.
So, she began to cough, because she needed to cough. Instead of figuring out what was causing her to cough, nurses essentially told her to stop coughing so her stitches wouldn’t burst. But she kept coughing—because she had to cough.
Eventually, her c-section stitches did burst and she was back in surgery—the first of many post-birth surgeries she would have to endure.
I wasn’t coughing for nothing; I was coughing because I had an embolism, a clot in one of my arteries, Serena wrote in ELLE. 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.
It’s almost as if she knew exactly what she was talking about. Go figure.
In the other room, 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.” 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.”
Spoiler alert: It was exactly what she needed.
Imagine telling a medical professional exactly what you need based on your knowledge of your body and your medical history and having them respond, “I think all this medicine is making you talk crazy.” One can only wonder how silly the nurse felt after she finally called Williams’ doctor who ordered the CAT scan, which proved, well, I’ll let Serena tell it.
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.
You can read Serena’s full cover story HERE.
Serena is alive today to be a mother to her daughter, a wife to her husband, and an inspiration to the world—all because she saved her own life.
Listen to Black women. Believe Black women. This is what loving Black women demands.