Serena Williams Saved Her Own Life Hours After Giving Birth – Why We Need To Listen To Mothers

Serena Williams Saved Her Own Life Hours After Giving Birth – Why We Need To Listen To Mothers

BellyBelly understands this content might trigger strong emotions.

We’re passionate about people’s experiences and about research (even if it’s hard to hear about them), because we can learn from them. After all, we want the best possible outcomes. Therefore, at the end of the article, we’ve included information about how you can make sure you’re listened to as a new mother.

The United States health system has two embarrassing statistics.

First, despite access to modern medical health care, the US has a high maternal death rate.

Second, black mothers are three times more likely to die from pregnancy or birth complications than white women.

The world’s greatest tennis player and new mother, Serena Williams, recently shared her birth experience in Vogue magazine’s February issue.

She shared her views about life as a new mother and her career ambitions. She graced the cover with her daughter Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr, showing the beauty of new motherhood.

Most shockingly, Williams revealed how, just hours after giving birth via c-section, she walked hospital staff through a process that saved her life, after her symptoms had been brushed aside.

Williams was experiencing a pulmonary embolism, a potentially fatal blood clot in the lungs.

Vogue reported:

“The next day, while recovering in the hospital, Serena suddenly felt short of breath. Because of her history of blood clots, and because she was off her daily anticoagulant regimen due to the recent surgery, she immediately assumed she was having another pulmonary embolism. (Serena lives in fear of blood clots.)

“She walked out of the hospital room so her mother wouldn’t worry and told the nearest nurse, between gasps, that she needed a CT scan with contrast and IV heparin (a blood thinner) right away. The nurse thought her pain medicine might be making her confused.

“But Serena insisted, and soon enough a doctor was performing an ultrasound of her legs. ‘I was like, a Doppler? I told you, I need a CT scan and a heparin drip,’ she remembers telling the team. The ultrasound revealed nothing, so they sent her for the CT, and sure enough, several small blood clots had settled in her lungs. Minutes later she was on the drip. ‘I was like, listen to Dr. Williams!’”

A famous tennis star, and a highly educated and experienced woman, almost became another maternal death statistic when her symptoms were brushed away as being “confused”. Her situation illustrates the inexplicable racial disparities in US healthcare and the importance of listening to new mothers.

Are Women Really At Risk For Childbirth Complications?

Generally, birth is a safe and normal physiological process. However, sometimes things deviate from expected, especially in women with certain medical histories.

Serena Williams required an emergency c-section. In a healthy woman without a problematic medical history, there are several risks associated with c-section births, including an increased risk of developing blood clots.

Williams had a history of blood clots and was off her blood thinning medication because of her c-section. The combination proved to be a massive risk for her.

Thankfully, she was aware of the symptoms, knew what hospital staff had to do, and insisted they did it.

She was one of about 150,000 American women each year to suffer from serious and life-threatening pregnancy or birth complications. Fortunately, her knowledge and boldness could very well have been the reason she was spared from being one of the 700-1200 American women who die during pregnancy or childbirth every year.

Although not all maternal deaths are preventable, more than 40% are.

But the responsibility for making sure she gets adequate medical care certainly shouldn’t be on the shoulders of an exhausted new mother who is recovering from a surgical birth.

Are Racial Disparities In Obstetrical Care Really An Issue In The US?

Statistics don’t lie. We see a very clear difference in birth outcomes when we compare white women with women in minority groups – specifically black women.

It isn’t a question of economic status or education; there are higher rates of complications and death even in black women who hold Master’s, law and even medical degrees.

Statistics show at least 46% of deaths among black mothers could be prevented, compared with 33% of deaths among white mothers.

Both statistics are certainly way too high in a developed country that has significant medical resources. However, they show clearly black mothers are at an increased risk of unnecessary death.

There isn’t one clear cause; neither is there one clear solution. However, awareness is key. Williams’ sharing of her story illustrates perfectly the importance of self-advocacy, and how vital it is for healthcare providers to listen.

What Do New Mothers Need To Know About Birth Safety?

Statistics are not meant to scare expectant or new mothers. It would be wonderful if we could protect mothers from fear, and from reality. Fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately, knowledge about potential risks and complications is power.

Williams’ knowledge, not only about her condition but about how to treat it, could very well be the only reason she survived her pulmonary embolisms. If she hadn’t been aware of the increased risk of blood clots following a c-section birth, she might not have been as tuned-in to her symptoms.

Statistics and information are meant to help us make informed decisions, and to recognise red flag symptoms.

Choosing a maternity care provider who shows you respect, practises evidence-based care, and takes your concerns seriously is perhaps one of the biggest decisions a mother can make to help facilitate the safest birth possible.

For newly postpartum mothers, it’s important to know that these red flag symptoms should always be addressed with your healthcare provider:

  • Any fever over 100.4F (38C)
  • Bleeding heavier than your typical menstrual period, or a sudden increase in bleeding
  • Discharge, pain or redness which has become worse, or which doesn’t clear, from your c-section incision, episiotomy, or perineal tear
  • Severe pain in your lower abdomen, accompanied by nausea and vomiting
  • Pain, tenderness and swelling in your legs, especially your calves
  • Pain and burning with urination
  • Foul smelling vaginal discharge
  • Chest pain
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Symptoms of shock, such as clammy skin, chills, dizziness, fainting or tachycardia (racing heart).

How Can You Make Sure You’re Listened To As A New Mother?

As mentioned, the care provider you choose can have a massive impact on your birth experience. A healthcare provider who takes time to treat you as an individual and educate you prenatally is one who is also likely to listen to you during the postnatal period.

It seems unfair, but mothers must self-advocate during pregnancy and birth to ensure they’re receiving adequate care.

Speaking up for yourself can be extremely important for your health.

How can you make sure you’re listened to? Consider the following:

  • Choose a maternity care provider who listens to your concerns and individual health needs during your prenatal visits.
  • Learn about and consider midwifery care.
  • Hire a birth doula who can guide you during your birth and initial postnatal period. Although many doulas won’t speak for you, they can guide and support you and your family in making your wishes and concerns known.
  • Take a comprehensive childbirth preparation class to learn about your options, the benefits and risks of different procedures, and what is and isn’t typical during birth and recovery.
  • Make your preferences known to your partner and other support people so they can help you speak up if you’re struggling or unable to do so.
  • Research birthing facilities in your area, and choose one with low rates of interventions and better birth outcomes.
  • Be confident! Trust your instincts and speak up.

If you’re in the US, be sure to check out Who Cares In The US? Choosing A Maternity Care Provider. 

If you’re in Australia, be sure to read Who Cares? Maternity Care Options For Australian Women.

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Maria Silver Pyanov is a mama of four energetic boys and one unique little girl. She is also a doula and childbirth educator. She's an advocate for birth options, and adequate prenatal care and support. She believes in the importance of rebuilding the village so no parent feels unsupported.

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