Serena Williams’s Traumatic Birth Story Shines a Much-Needed Light on Black Maternal Mortality

Last week, tennis extraordinaire and new mama Serena Williams graced the February cover of Vogue, along with her gorgeous 3-month old daughter Olympia. In an interview with the magazine, Williams talked candidly about her larger-than-life career, navigating motherhood, and (the million dollar question) how she’s managing to balance it all. But buried in the middle of the interview was the harrowing account of Olympia’s birth.

According to Williams, she had a healthy and uneventful pregnancy. But the delivery itself ended up being pretty terrifying when little Olympia’s heart rate dipped dangerously low and Williams needed an emergency C-section. Fortunately, Olympia was born healthy and vibrant. But after the birth, things took a dramatic turn for the worse.

“That was an amazing feeling,” Serena shared, of the moment Olympia was laid on her chest. “And then everything went bad.”

Within a day of the birth, Williams, who has a history of pulmonary embolisms, began to feel short of breath. Because of her recent surgery, she was off her daily anticoagulant regimen, which made her concerned that she was experiencing symptoms of a blood clot. But when she relayed these concerns to her doctors, Williams says her concerns were blown off completely, as though she was overreacting. The medical staff allegedly blamed her confusion on the pain medicine she was on after her surgery, and according to Williams, she had to basically shout at the doctors to have her concerns taken seriously.

“I was like, a Doppler? I told you, I need a CT scan and a heparin drip,” Williams recalls telling the team. “I was like, listen to Dr. Williams!”

But sadly, the new mom’s saga didn’t end there. The tennis star tells Vogue that she had one complication after another following Olympia’s birth. First, her C-section scar re-opened due to coughing from her pulmonary embolism. And when the doctors went in to fix that, they found that a large hematoma had filled her abdomen and she needed another procedure to fix that.

Black women are three to four times more likely to die after childbirth than white women. And many experts believe this has to do in part with racial bias …
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Thankfully, Williams pulled through, and by all accounts is now healthy and happy, along with her little girl. But what’s so striking about her story is the fact that she had to ask — repeatedly — to have her voice heard when she was experiencing a medical emergency after birth. What if she hadn’t done that, or if her pleading wasn’t taken seriously after all?

It turns out that Williams is far from alone. In fact, this sort of thing happens to new mothers way more often than we realize.

Research reveals that we have a growing problem in America when it comes to complications in the postpartum period for new moms, and it’s estimated that 150,000 women experience severe, near-death complications postpartum each year.

Tragically, hundreds of these women die each year (the latest numbers from the CDC are about 17 deaths per 100,000 women giving birth). And this problem only seems to be getting worse. Among developed nations, America has the highest infant mortality rate of all, and over the past 20 years, our rate has actually been rising.

What’s more, the maternal mortality rate is disproportionately higher for black women than any other group in America. Black women are three to four times more likely to die after childbirth than white women. And many experts believe this has to do in part with racial bias on the part of healthcare personnel who simply do not take black women’s complaints as seriously as women of other races.

Over the past few days since the Vogue interview was released, many women have come forward (in both published articles and on social media) praising Williams for sharing her story — and most importantly, for shedding light on the issue of the horrifying statistics about black maternal mortality in America.

“As an OB/GYN and a black woman, I know first-hand that black women experience pregnancy and postpartum complications at an alarming rate,” wrote Sanithia L. Williams, MD, in an article for Tonic. “Williams’s experience — as well as the recent death of activist Erica Garner due to apparent complications that began after her son’s birth — put a familiar face on the deplorable state of maternal health for black women in the United States.”

And it seems that Williams herself has taken these comments to heart. Just yesterday, Williams responded to the important conversations her birth story has generated on her Facebook page — and her words deserve a standing ovation in and of themselves.

Along with an adorable video of her daughter Olympia, Williams shared some powerful words about her birth story, and the message that it’s sending to all of us about the issue of maternal mortality among black mothers.

“I didn’t expect that sharing our family’s story of Olympia’s birth and all of complications after giving birth would start such an outpouring of discussion from women — especially black women — who have faced similar complications and women whose problems go unaddressed,” wrote Williams.

“We have a lot of work to do as a nation,” says Williams, after quoting statistics about black maternal mortality, “and I hope my story can inspire a conversation that gets us to close this gap.”

It seems her story is doing just that. As Williams explains, we all deserve an equal chance at having a healthy pregnancy and birth, one in which our needs and concerns are listened to and properly attended to. No one — regardless of the color of their skin, their socioeconomic status, or anything else — should be treated differently or given sub-par care.

Williams sees her own experience after birth as an important lesson, not just for herself, but for all of us. And she’s encouraging women everywhere to open up about their experiences, however difficult they’ve been, so that we can all become more aware of the inequities that affect so many women in the birthing sphere.

“I want to thank all of you who have opened up through online comments and other platforms to tell your story,” Williams shares at the end of her Facebook post. “I encourage you to continue to tell those stories. This helps. We can help others. Our voices are our power.”

I have always admired Williams for her strong tenacity on the tennis court; she has never held back, and proves over and over that that women are amazing badasses who pretty much rule the world. But it turns out that she’s also an incredible mom as well — one whose brave voice might end up making a difference in the lives of so many women.

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