Shortly after the tennis superstar gave birth to her daughter Olympia via cesarean section in 2017, Williams wrote, she knew there was something wrong — she began coughing so heavily she “couldn’t breathe.” Nurses warned her to stop because it could burst her stitches, but she couldn’t help herself.
“I was coughing because I just couldn’t get enough air,” Williams said. “I grabbed a towel, rolled it up, and put it over my incision. Sure enough, I was hacking so hard that my stitches burst. I went into my first surgery after the C-section to get restitched.”
Little did Williams realize that this would be the first of her many surgeries in the hospital.
“I wasn’t coughing for nothing; I was coughing because I had an embolism, a clot in one of my arteries.” She added that her medical record showed that her doctors also discovered a hematoma — a collection of blood outside the blood vessels.
Yet medical workers wouldn’t have caught these conditions if Williams hadn’t had prior knowledge of blood clot symptoms (she’d experienced them previously) along with the will to advocate for herself so they would take her concerns seriously.
But they didn’t at first.
Williams notes in her essay that after she was restitched, she woke up and still “felt like I was dying.”
She mustered the strength to get out of her bed and find some help. But when she found a nurse and suggested she get a CAT scan and be put on blood thinners, the nurse ignored her, she said.
“I told her: ‘I need to have a CAT scan of my lungs bilaterally, and then I need to be on my heparin drip.’ She said, ‘I think all this medicine is making you talk crazy,’” the tennis star recalled.
Williams persisted, and after several attempts to get the nurse to listen, she said, they finally called the doctor in.
“I fought hard, and I ended up getting the CAT scan. I’m so grateful to her. 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,” she wrote.
“I had a wonderful, wonderful doctor. Unfortunately a lot of African-Americans and black people don’t have the same experience that I’ve had,” she told the BBC. She added:
“Because of what I went through, it would be really difficult if I didn’t have the health care that I have ― and to imagine all the other women that do go through that without the same health care, without the same response, it’s upsetting. I think there’s a lot of pre-judging, absolutely, that definitely goes on. And it needs to be addressed.”
Read Williams’ full essay in Elle.