Serena Williams on Childbirth Challenges: 'Our Voices Are Our Power'

Serena Williams with her daughter, Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr., named after her husband. (Instagram photo)

Whether you’re rich like Serena Williams or struggling day to day, black women across socioeconomic groups face a disproportionately higher risk of complications or even death during pregnancy and childbirth.

Annie Waldman of ProPublica investigated the problem in “How Hospitals Are Failing Black Mothers,” which published last month. Serena shares her own scare in giving birth to her daughter on her Facebook page and in a February cover story for Vogue.

Serena Williams on Childbirth Challenges: 'Our Voices Are Our Power'Meeting Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr., named for her husband, was “an amazing feeling,” Serena recalled in the article. “And then everything went bad.”

A nurse ignored her requests for a CT scan and blood thinner when she had trouble breathing the next day. But Serena being Serena didn’t back down, especially with her history of blood clots. A number of them turned up in her lungs.

But this was just the first chapter of a six-day drama. Her fresh C-section wound popped open from the intense coughing spells caused by the pulmonary embolism, and when she returned to surgery, they found that a large hematoma had flooded her abdomen, the result of a medical catch-22 in which the potentially lifesaving blood thinner caused hemorrhaging at the site of her C-section.

She spent her first six weeks at home in bed and experienced some postpartum blues. “No one talks about the low moments — the pressure you feel,” Serena admitted in the article. However, she seems far past those moments, based on all the comments, photos and videos that she shares with her fans via social media.

In Waldman’s analysis of two years’ worth of data, she found lots of black women who faced similar challenges as Serena did in September — many with dire consequences, such as 33-year-old Dacheca Fleurimond.

It’s been long-established that black women like Fleurimond fare worse in pregnancy and childbirth, dying at a rate more than triple that of white mothers. And while part of the disparity can be attributed to factors like poverty and inadequate access to health care, there is growing evidence that points to the quality of care at hospitals where a disproportionate number of black women deliver, which are often in neighborhoods disadvantaged by segregation.

Researchers have found that women who deliver at these so-called “black-serving” hospitals are more likely to have serious complications — from infections to birth-related embolisms to emergency hysterectomies — than mothers who deliver at institutions that serve fewer black women.

“We have a lot of work to do as a nation, and I hope my story can inspire a conversation that gets us to close this gap,” Serena wrote on her Facebook page.

 “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.”
“Let me be clear: EVERY mother, regardless of race, or background deserves to have a healthy pregnancy and childbirth,” the tennis champion said. “I personally want all women of all colors to have the best experience they can have. My personal experience was not great but it was MY experience and I’m happy it happened to me. It made me stronger and it made me appreciate women — both women with and without kids — even more. We are powerful!!!”

“We can help others. Our voices are our power.”