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Serena Williams opens up about her near-fatal postpartum experience

“Being heard and appropriately treated was the difference between life or death for me,” Williams said in a new personal essay.

This Sept. 10, 2019, file photo shows Serena Williams holding her daughter Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr. after showing her clothing line at New York Fashion Week.Seth Wenig/Associated Press

Tennis great Serena Williams is opening up about her excruciating 2017 childbirth experience, where she recalls having to repeatedly advocate for her own care.

The personal essay, “How Serena Williams Saved Her Own Life,” was published Tuesday on Elle.com. In it, Williams, the winner of 23 Grand Slam singles titles, shares the details of the postpartum ordeals that followed the birth of her daughter, Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr., whom she calls Olympia.

In the essay, Williams points directly to the outsize maternal mortality rates for Black people, which was about three times the rate for white people as of 2020, according to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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“Being heard and appropriately treated was the difference between life or death for me,” Williams, 40, wrote. “I know those statistics would be different if the medical establishment listened to every Black woman’s experience.’

Williams shared that, following a relatively easy pregnancy and a C-section compelled by her daughter’s rising and falling heartbeat, she woke up after the surgery with her baby in her arms. “The rest of my body was paralyzed,” she wrote.

Williams is “at high risk for blood clots,“ she wrote; she revealed in 2011 that she had experienced a life-threatening pulmonary embolism — when a blood clot blocks one or more arteries in the lung — as well as a hematoma. After giving birth, Williams recalled inquiring about getting a drip of heparin, a blood thinner.

“The response was, ‘Well, we don’t really know if that’s what you need to be on right now,’” Williams wrote. “No one was really listening to what I was saying.”

Williams, who described her “excruciating pain” and persisting paralysis, said she then began coughing. The fits eventually burst her C-section incision, necessitating another surgery to restitch her wound.

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“I wasn’t coughing for nothing; I was coughing because I had an embolism, a clot in one of my arteries,” she wrote. “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. That’s what the medical report says, anyway. To me, it was just a fog of surgeries, one after another.”

Williams said she told a nurse she needed a CT scan of her lungs and a heparin drip, which she said the nurse resisted.

“She said, ‘I think all this medicine is making you talk crazy.’ I said, ‘No, I’m telling you what I need,’” she recalled. “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.”

After four surgeries over the course of a week, Williams and her husband, Reddit cofounder Alexis Ohanian, were able to take Olympia home.

The personal essay — adapted from Williams’ contribution to the anthology “Arrival Stories: Women Share Their Experiences of Becoming Mothers,” which was published Tuesday — isn’t the first time she has opened up about her postpartum health scare. In a February 2018 Vogue cover story, Williams recounted a doctor performing an ultrasound instead of the CT scan she had requested.

“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,” the Vogue story said.

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“‘I was like, listen to Dr. Williams!’” the Vogue story quoted Williams as saying.

Williams said the experience changed her outlook on tennis — which Olympia, 4, is already practicing.

“I still want the titles, the success, and the esteem, but it’s not my reason for waking up in the morning. There is more to teach her about this game than winning,” Williams wrote. “I’ve learned to dust myself off after defeat, to stand up for what matters at any cost, to call out for what’s fair—even when it makes me unpopular. Giving birth to my baby, it turned out, was a test for how loud and how often I would have to call out before I was finally heard.”


Dana Gerber can be reached at dana.gerber@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @danagerber6.