Professional tennis player, businesswoman, and UNICEF goodwill ambassador Serena Williams can now add being a mother to her impressive list… and also “survivor.”
The star athlete told CNN she almost died while giving birth to daughter Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr. in September.
Williams, who re-teamed with her sister Venus for the United States in the Fed Cup, said her pregnancy was, for the most part, without complications.
It wasn’t until the baby’s heart rate dropped significantly during contractions, requiring an emergency C-section.
The surgery went smoothly. Before I knew it, Olympia was in my arms. It was the most amazing feeling I’ve ever experienced in my life. But what followed just 24 hours after giving birth were six days of uncertainty.
Williams suffers from a family history of pulmonary embolism, a condition in which the blockage of a major blood vessel in the lungs is caused by blood clots. When she found it suddenly difficult to breath after delivering Olympia, she quickly alerted nurses.
What followed was a harrowing account of a number of close calls.
This sparked a slew of health complications that I am lucky to have survived. First my C-section wound popped open due to the intense coughing I endured as a result of the embolism. I returned to surgery, where the doctors found a large hematoma, a swelling of clotted blood, in my abdomen. And then I returned to the operating room for a procedure that prevents clots from traveling to my lungs. When I finally made it home to my family, I had to spend the first six weeks of motherhood in bed.
Williams considered herself extremely lucky and praised her medical staff who saved her life.
Unfortunately, not everyone has access to the kind of medical attention that she was able to get. She said there are thousands of women around the world who struggle with proper health care.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, black women in the United States are over three times more likely to die from pregnancy or childbirth-related causes.
According to the United Nations Children’s Fund, 2.6 billion newborns die, and 80% of them are from preventable causes.
As an example, Williams shared UNICEF’s documented story of Mary James from Malawi, who made an exhausting trek on foot all the way to a health facility to give birth. After delivering the baby once she made it to the facility, the newborn died the next day due to a lack of doctors and nurses to save him.
This is a chronic problem plaguing the most impoverished countries. But what if we lived in a world where there were enough birth attendants? Where there was no shortage of access to health facilities nearby? Where lifesaving drugs and clean water were easily available to all? Where midwives could help and advise mothers after birth? What if we lived in a world where every mother and newborn could receive affordable health care and thrive in life?
Been 2 Malawi 2 volunteer w @MalawianMothers many times & witnessed this. We care 4orphans/women who have experienced traumatic births. Thanks 4 your generous time In bringing attention 2this. If u want to visit Malawi we would love 2 have you. pic.twitter.com/qHFLtH1eyb
— Dehlia Gonzalez (@dehliag) February 21, 2018
Williams said possible solutions are available through working with UNICEF because every mother, regardless of background, is deserving of a healthy pregnancy and birth.
She urged people to reach out to the New York-headquartered program and to other charities to help mothers and babies in need.
Help save lives by calling on 🌎 leaders to prioritize quality, affordable health care for mothers and newborns. Sign @UNICEF’s petition TODAY! → https://t.co/iP0wJPrj0l #EveryChildALIVE https://t.co/56juwdrb3E
— Serena Williams (@serenawilliams) February 20, 2018
Her story of survival on CNN served as an inspiration.
Thank you for using your harrowing experience in service to other women less fortunate than yourself. You are a champion in so many ways!
— Leslie Street (@ZanzibarAnnie) February 20, 2018
Thank you so much for the support. This is a very important cause. Need everyone's focus. Not difficult to achieve.
— Praveen Venkatagiri (@drpraveen_v) February 21, 2018
Others shared their heartbreaking stories.
She was a young mother and couldn’t afford much prenatal care. I stayed in hospital for almost a month till I was strong enough to come home. My brother died from cancer at age 8. @alexisohanian
— ❤DeNeva Diva❤ (@Divaintraining) February 20, 2018
My granddaughter suffered a Placental Abruption after a c-section She was in ICU for five days. I still get emotional talking about it.
— Dorothy Wright (@DorothyMB) February 21, 2018
Maternal mortality should be a non-existent issue in the 21st century. Sad that women and children pay the price of lack of health care. https://t.co/B5K9kJrSLy
— Courtney Fowler (@c24fowler) February 20, 2018
The 23-time Grand Slam winner was back in the game earlier this month, and little Olympia was there to cheer on her mother.
— Good Morning America (@GMA) February 12, 2018
She is adorable @serenawilliams ❤❤
— LA Evans (@Quishaevans) February 12, 2018
She’s a champion in so many ways.
As an avid Serena fan I so look forward to her return to the tennis court to be a dominant tennis player once again, but if she does not I know it is because of her need to be a dominant force and fighter for women and the under privileged. @serenawilliams https://t.co/sIpMQPQwgC
— This too shall pass (@sharpetax) February 20, 2018
You are a strong and brave woman Serena. Your child is a blessing. Your story is both inspirational and terrifying to read. Being an advocate, and raising awareness for others, through UNICEF is really commendable.
— Noodles (@noodles_noo) February 20, 2018