When you hear the name Serena Williams, a few choice words come to mind: Fierce. Fearless. Strong. Driven. Unbreakable.
But recently Serena spoke out about how she was almost taken down, not by a formidable opponent, but by her own body following the birth of her daughter.
After welcoming baby Olympia into the world via emergency C-section, Williams noticed a shortness of breath and became worried she may be experiencing a pulmonary embolism. With her history of blood clots, one nearly fatal, she regularly takes blood thinners and recognized the signs of trouble.
Her request for a CT scan and blood thinners were dismissed by her nurse as confusion stemming from her pain medication. Williams, knowing her own body, persisted, and doctors agreed to do an ultrasound on her legs. “I was like, a Doppler? I told you, I need a CT scan and a heparin drip,” insisted the Phenom.
When the ultrasound showed nothing, doctors eventually performed a CT at William’s insistence and found several small blood clots in her lungs, which they treated with blood thinners. Surprise! She knows her body!
In addition to the blood clots, coughing caused by the embolism caused her C-section wound to open back up, and surgery to repair the open incision revealed a large hematoma in her abdomen. These complications left Williams bedridden for six weeks.
Williams’ harrowing ordeal highlights concerns surrounding patient treatment including the experiences of people of colour in particular. Dismissiveness is a genuine problem in the medical industry, and research has already indicated that the pain concerns and pain management of black people are ignored at a higher than average rate.
Taking the Dr. Google approach to medical care and walking into your doctor’s office with a self-diagnosis based on WebMD is a bad idea. I am sure it’s mind-numbingly frustrating for doctors with decade of schooling and years of experience to be challenged by a blog post or a patient who insists they know medicine better than the professionals.
But being an advocate for yourself and knowing your own body is not the same thing as, “I read this on the internet.” The doctors and nurses are medical professionals, and their expertise should be respected and followed – but you are the expert of your own body, and if something doesn’t feel right, that is important and needs to be addressed.
Following Williams’ account of how being dismissed could have cost her her life, many black women have been coming forward to discuss their experiences and the experiences of black patients at the hands of medical professionals. Refusal to take the concerns of black patients seriously is common, and life-threatening. Indeed, a recent report by ProPublica showed that black women are three or four times more likely than white women to die during childbirth.
Black patients frequently face barriers when it comes to pain management. Nurse and Twitter user @grimalkinrn told the story of the intense difficulty she had getting adequate pain medication for one of her black patients. She lamented, “I wish I could say that Mary was the only black patient I’d met that had problems with pain medication but that was not the case. I’ve seen so many excuses for not giving post op patients adequate pain control, even though many of them are recovering from cancer.”
Despite being rich, famous, and an athlete with a keen knowledge of the human body, especially her own, Serena Williams was dismissed. “What do you think happens to poor, immigrant Black women?” posits Safety Pin Box co-founder Leslie Mac.
We need advocates. We need to do as Williams did and insist on proper care for ourselves. We need to speak up for our loved ones. We need more nurses and medical professionals to advocate for minority patients like @grimalkinrn did for Mary.
Serena, I am so sorry you had to experience this scary and frustrating ordeal. Thank you for speaking out and being a catalyst for change.