Tennis champion Serena Williams became a mother for the first time last September when she gave birth to Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr. Though she joked that she and baby Olympia are “not spending a day apart until she’s eighteen,” bringing her daughter into the world almost cost Williams her life.
Black women are more than three times as likely as their white counterparts to die during pregnancy or childbirth, and Williams thinks one reason is because many doctors don’t take the concerns of Black women seriously.
“Doctors aren’t listening to us, just to be quite frank,” she said during a recent interview with the BBC. “I was in a really fortunate situation where I know my body well, and I am who I am, and I told the doctor: ‘I don’t feel right, something’s wrong.’ She immediately listened.”
The day after having baby Olympia via a emergency cesarean section, Williams felt short of breath and worried she was having a pulmonary embolism, a condition that previously sidelined her career for nearly a year. Williams told a nurse she needed a CT scan, but the woman brushed her aside. When she spoke to her doctor, Williams again said she needed the procedure and her physician listened. The CT scan found several blood clots in Williams’ lungs, which could have easily been deadly.
“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 said.
“Because of what I went through, it would be really difficult if I didn’t have the healthcare that I have – and to imagine all the other women that do go through that without the same healthcare, without the same response, it’s upsetting,” Williams said.
In addition to subpar access to quality healthcare, many Black women are forced to deal with both unconscious and outright bias from from doctors. In an investigative report on the issue, ProPublica and NPR collected 200 stories from Black women who felt disrespected and devalued by healthcare officials. The result? Many Black women don’t feel comfortable seeking help, speaking with their doctors, and the care they receive does not accurately address their needs.
While she believes the medical community needs to get its act together in the way it treats Black women with respect, Williams also said when it comes to addressing any sort of inequality, we have to speak out.
“I think it’s important to speak up loud and clear and say: ‘No, this isn’t right. Treat me the same way that you’re treating [someone else],” she said.