Serena Williams Had To Fight To Get Doctors To Take Her Post-Pregnancy Complications Seriously — And She’s Not Alone

by Anna Wesche


In her Vogue cover story released on Wednesday, Serena Williams opened up about her marriage, her daughter, and the pregnancy complications that threatened her life.

It’s both surprising and scary to hear that the U.S. has the highest rate of maternal mortality in the developed world. According to an article written by ProPublica, an estimated 700-900 women in the U.S. died from pregnancy-related issues in 2016, with black women dying at a rate more than triple that of white mothers.

For Serena, her successful emergency C-section was immediately overshadowed by post-pregnancy complications that included a pulmonary embolism, hemorrhaging, a re-torn C-section wound, and a surgery to insert a filter that would prevent more clots from traveling to her lungs.

Serena recounted the struggle she had with doctors to Vogue. The article reads:

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!”

All in all, Serena was lucky. Many other black women don’t fare as well. While some of the disparity between maternal mortality rates of white women and black women can be contributed to economic factors, researchers have found that women who deliver children in “black-serving” hospitals are more likely to suffer from serious complications than those who deliver at hospitals that serve fewer black women.

ProPublica found that SUNY Downstate Medical Center, located in the East Flatbush neighborhood of New York, has one of the highest hemorrhage rates across the states of New York, Illinois, and Florida, and 90 percent of the woman who give birth there are black.  ProPublica writes, “On average, 34 percent of women who hemorrhage while giving birth at New York hospitals experience significant complications. At SUNY Downstate, it’s 62 percent. In New York, on average, high black-serving hospitals had complication rates 21 percent higher than low black-serving hospitals. In Illinois and Florida, high black-serving hospitals had complication rates 11 percent higher.”

ProPublica also limited their patient pool to only healthy mothers between the ages of 25 and 32; the pattern largely remained the same, indicating that differences in care and patient characteristics were affecting the health of delivering mothers.

Frighteningly, the maternal mortality rate in the U.S. has risen over the past decade. In an article from September 2016, the New York Times reported that the rate had risen by more than half since 1990. Though the research points some much-needed attention towards maternal mortality, we’re still left wondering how so many would-be miracles turned into too many disasters.

Photo via Vogue

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