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Serena Williams' Life-Threatening Postnatal Experience Sheds Light On Unequal Health Care Opportunities For Black Mothers

Tennis legend Serena Williams may be an unstoppable force in the court, but as she lay in a hospital bed just hours after giving birth, she went through a harrowing experience that could have cost her her life. The life-threatening episode, as it now seems, has also sparked renewed discussion on the disparities in health care for African-American mothers.

In a Vogue exclusive, the mother to three-month-old daughter Alexis Olympia describes the experience as nothing short of alarming.

 

 

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The day after the 36-year-old gave birth to a healthy baby girl via C-section, she immediately felt that something in her system was amiss. Not wanting to alarm her mother who was keeping watch, Serena bravely walked out of her hospital room and approached the first nurse she saw about what she was feeling.

Serena, who has a history of pulmonary embolisms (blood clots that settle in the lungs), spoke to this nurse in between labored gasps of air. She explained her medical history to the best of her abilities, specifically citing that she was in need of a CT scan with contrast and IV heparin (a blood thinner).

 

 

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The nurse discounted Serena's advice and instead paged a doctor who performed an ultrasound of her legs. The nurse assumed that Serena must have simply been feeling dazed and confused from her pain medication and did not have to be taken seriously.

The ultrasound results came out negative and Serena continued to insist on a CT scan, which she eventually underwent. The CT scan did indeed reveal that small blood clots had settled in her lungs, and moments later, she was on a heparin drip.

 

 

Just how I look at her

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Because of  the severity of this episode, Serena's coughing spells caused her C-section wound to rupture, sending her back to the operating room a mere two or three days after giving birth. The new mother was prescribed six weeks of bed rest when she was finally discharged from the hospital.

Because of her knowledge of a pulmonary embolism's symptoms, Serena was essentially able to save her own life—a miracle that not many other African-American mothers are afforded. This story would have a very different ending if Serena was not as persistent or alert.

 

 

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Serena's revelation of her traumatizing postnatal experiences was, at first, just meant to inspire women about the joys of motherhood. What she didn't see coming was how many of her followers and readers would pick up on an overarching theme of inequality in American health care: at least 46% of maternal deaths among African- American women could be prevented (versus 33% for white women), as stated by the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology.

To put it in other words, Dr. Michael Lu says that "African-American doctors, lawyers, business executives, and they still have a higher infant-mortality rate than…white women who never went to high school in the first place.” The neonatal specialist has studied the impact of discrimination in maternal and newborn health and expounds on the topic in the documentary "When the Bough Breaks." 

 

 

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Others have also been quick to point out that discrimination in health care, especially for black mothers, has been well-documented over the years. Serena's case is simply another tally in the scoreboard, but what makes her story different is her status and influence. Ordinary black mothers—those who cannot bank on fame for special treatment—might have to face skepticism and disdain from nurses and doctors alike before receiving life-saving treatment.

 

 

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Serena has expressed pleasant surprise in how her story has raised awareness on the issue.

As she turns her attention to her new life as a doting mother, will Serena become an advocate for pushing for equality in health care? We certainly hope so.