Black Maternal Health Week: Serena Williams Shares Her Near-Fatal Birthing Story

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Image: Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic.

To bring awareness to Black Maternal Health Week, which starts today, Serena Williams opened up in a personal essay, in the April issue of Elle, about the many complications and dismissals from medical staff that nearly ended her life during childbirth. 

After what she describes as a “wonderful pregnancy [in which] my focus narrowed to keeping myself healthy for the baby” Williams was prepared and educated about the birthing process. “I had taken every birthing class that the hospital had to offer.” When she found herself in labor, “the contractions were coming harder and faster. With each one, my baby’s heart rate plummeted.” As a result her doctor deduced in a meeting with family and staff, that excluded Williams, that an emergency C-section would be the best course of action. 

Before she knew it, Williams was post-op cradling her daughter Olympia, completely in awe of her baby girl. Slowly she began to realize, “The rest of my body was paralyzed. I couldn’t get out of bed because my legs were still numb.” Knowing that she was at risk for blood clots, due to a scare in 2010 in which clots were found in her lungs, she repeatedly inquired her nurse about receiving a herapin drip, a preventative blood thinner. She was dismissed several times by nurses until she began to cough violently and uncontrollably. 

“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.” As Williams gasped for air, her stitches burst, leading to another surgery to restore them. After three more surgeries relating to her C-section, Williams asked again, “I need to have a CAT scan of my lungs bilaterally, and then I need to be on my heparin drip.” To which her nurse replied, “I think all this medicine is making you talk crazy.” Williams persisted, listening to her gut and pleaded “I’m telling you, this is what I need” over and over again. Finally, her doctor was called and a CAT scan was performed.

The results were startling, “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.” She learned that her initial coughing fits were due to “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.” 

After entering her fourth emergency surgery, Williams’ clots were successfully removed, which ultimately saved her life. When she left the hospital a week later, she recounts feeling too weak to even walk up her driveway, both physically and mentally drained. In reflection of the experiencing, she says “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’ story is haunting but not uncommon. According to the CDC, Black women are nearly three times more likely to die after childbirth than white women from preventable complications. “Time and time again Black women are held to a lower regard when it comes to their pain, concerns, and especially their pregnancies and childbirth as if they are not allowed to question or go against the system that oftentimes has already made up their mind about them before even giving them a chance” says, Tamiya Griffin, BS, CD. Health Coach at Ovia Health, a clinically-backed, digital family health platform.

Griffin details, “Worrying less during pregnancy is good for you and your baby. A review in Obstetric Medicine found that prenatal stress, like fears about childbirth, can have lasting physical consequences for both expecting parents and their babies, including low birth weight, premature delivery, and gestational diabetes. Writing a birth plan can help you meet uncertainty with acceptance, not anxiety. When your birth plan is flexible and comprehensive, both you and your birth team can turn to it as a good birth wishlist, a guide to what matters most to you as you enter the next chapter of your life as an expectant parent.”

Not sure where to begin in creative a birthing plan? The experts at Ovia are sharing step-by-step tips on how to get started. Read on for their advice on how to arrive at the hospital prepared and elevate your birthing experience. 

Prepare for uncertainty 

While we can probably all agree that accepting “uncertainty as the only certainty” is easier said than done, most of us worry less about uncertainty when we feel prepared. Writing a birth plan helps channel any anxious energy into something productive. Use your sense of accomplishment from creating your rock-star birth plan to help you conquer your fear of childbirth.

A birth plan helps you get to know your provider better

Talking early (anytime after 25-30 weeks) and often about your childbirth and postpartum plan helps you confirm that you have chosen the right provider for you. The right provider for you is someone who listens to you and who you can trust. When you trust your provider (or provider team), you can feel more confident that they have your best interest at heart.

Choose who should attend the main event

Just as you need to know that your provider has your back, you want to make sure the right people are around you when contractions start for real. (Who knows, maybe you have always been waiting for the chance to be able to tell your MIL to take a hike?) A birth plan can be a tactful way to have these difficult conversations before you’re in labor. Nobody wants family drama in their delivery room!

Birth plan = Partners’ prep

Even if your partner is an OB/GYN, that doesn’t mean they know exactly how to support you in the delivery room. Every birth partner needs to prepare, regardless of who they are. Researching, writing, and talking about a birth plan together can help ease your birth partner’s worries too. The last thing you want to be worrying about in labor is your partner worrying about you.

Let your knowledge help you reclaim your power

Learn about what is and isn’t normal during pregnancy, delivery, and postpartum. There is a reason why What to Expect When You’re Expecting was such a blockbuster success — expectant parents need information to prepare. So geek out all you want on crafting the mother-of-all birth plans — doing so will help you prepare for the main event. You’ll feel more confident, powerful, and in control because less will be new, unfamiliar, or unknown during your delivery and postpartum.

Establish open lines of communication

Many people who are afraid of childbirth worry that they will not have a voice in decision-making. When it comes to a good birth, over communication is the name of the game. Talking about your birth preferences early and often with as many people as possible will likely help reduce your anxiety. Think of your birth plan as your opportunity to tell your doctor and labor and delivery nurses what you do and don’t want to happen at your delivery. The more practice you get talking about complicated health information with healthcare providers, the more your self-confidence and power will grow. It is time to claim your seat at the table (or birthing stool in the delivery room as the case may be).

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