People were horrified when Serena Williams revealed her near-death experience giving birth to her daughter Olympia in the February issue of VOGUE. But on Feb. 20, Serena Williams published a deeply personal essay about her post-delivery complications on CNN. The professional tennis player and UNICEF goodwill ambassador said considers herself to be lucky because of her access to excellent doctors and top-of-the-line equipment, but acknowledged not everyone is so lucky. She shared the details of the experience with CNN, and her story is inspiring women everywhere to take action.
While her C-section surgery went off without a hitch, Williams wrote, it was followed by a pulmonary embolism, a blockage in the pulmonary artery caused by clotted blood, which further triggered a series of health complications. that lasted over the next six days. Unable to breathe properly due to the embolism, Williams' cough caused her C-section stitches to re-open. Upon her return to the surgical table, Williams' doctors discovered a large hematoma, a collection of blood outside of a blood vessel, in her abdomen. The doctors moved quickly in order to prevent the swelling blood clot from reaching the athlete's lungs. Fortunately, the procedure was successful, and Williams was able to return home, where she remained bedridden for six more weeks.
Williams is not alone in her struggle. A report from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention recently revealed that Black women in the United States are more than three times more likely to die from childbirth, a statistic Williams cited in her essay for CNN. Williams has acknowledged that without access to an expert team of medical professionals, medication, and advanced equipment, her chances of survival would have been dramatically reduced. Such is the case for thousands of women in developing countries: if met with unexpected complications during the height of their pregnancies, most must travel miles for any form of aid, and still lack access to proper care facilities, doctors, equipment, and medication.
Williams cites the story of Mary James, a woman from Malawi who walked for hours to receive care after going into labor. When she finally reached the center and gave birth to a son, her newborn died shortly after. Williams told CNN that James' "nameless son" never let out a cry, nor opened his eyes. He was one of approximately 2,600 newborns per day that die shortly after childbirth, according to UNICEF.
A recent study by UNICEF states that 2.6 million newborns die on the same day that they are born every year, and 80% pass away from causes that could have been prevented by access to proper care and equipment. Williams identifies this phenomenon as a "chronic problem plaguing the most impoverished countries", and calls upon our nation to come together and act, to do our part in protecting women worldwide.
This phenomenon is occurring domestically as well. Williams' story comes two months after the death of civil rights activist Erica Garner, who passed away from a heart attack less than a year after giving birth. Chronic stress can be a large contributing factor to maternal mortality, and when combined with institutionalized racism, creates a deadly mix. In fact, according to Pro Republica, Black women living in Garner's hometown of New York City are 12 times more likely to die shortly after giving birth than white women. Her narrative, along with Williams', is another reminder that Black women have long been ignored by the health care system.
In order to make a tangible difference when it comes to maternal mortality worldwide, Williams encourages readers to hold government officials, business and health care companies accountable, as well as to donate to UNICEF, which is dedicated to recruiting and training doctors and midwives, opening safe health care centers, and gaining access to top-of-the-line equipment and medication. But perhaps the most significant thing one can do, Williams says, is encourage adolescent girls to speak out and demand better care.
As William wrote for CNN, "Together, we can make this change. Together, we can be the change." Her essay is not only inspirational, but motivates women around the world to reclaim their bodies and their rights.