In the cover story to Vogue‘s February issue, Williams reveals that her plummeting heart rate reached dangerously low levels during contractions, leading to an emergency cesarean section.
Though the surgery went well, what followed was a six-day battle with a pulmonary embolism that led to multiple surgeries and a handful of additional medical troubles for Williams.
“That was an amazing feeling,” Williams, 36, recalls of having a crying newborn fall silent when laid on her mother’s chest seconds after birth. “And then everything went bad.”
Symptoms for Williams’ problems began the day after her daughter’s birth, as Williams experienced sudden shortness of breath while recovering in the hospital.
Having had blood clots in the past and because she wasn’t taking blood thinners due to her c-section, she knew that the breathing problems she was experiencing were due to another pulmonary embolism and immediately told the nearest nurse (between gasps for breath) that she needed a CT scan with contrast and IV heparin.
The nurse, however, thought Williams was just feeling confused from her pain medication. Instead, doctors performed an ultrasound of her legs, which ultimately revealed nothing.
“I was like, ‘A Doppler? I told you, I need a CT scan and a heparin drip,’ ” Williams remembers.
When they finally listened, the CT turned up several small blood clots, which had settled into her lungs. “I was like, ‘Listen to Dr. Williams!’ ” she jokes as she was put on the blood thinner drip.
Dr. Williams couldn’t have imagined what would happen next, though.
Intense coughing spells sparked by the pulmonary embolism would cause her c-section wounds to pop open, leading to a return to the operating room. During surgery, doctors found a large hematoma flooding her abdomen that had been caused by hemorrhaging at the site of her c-section. In order to prevent more clots from dislodging and moving into her lungs, she returned to surgery for a third time to have a filter inserted into a major vein.
A week later, she was home — though was unable to get out of bed for six weeks and didn’t have a night nurse to help take care of Olympia.
“I was happy to change diapers,” now-husband Alexis Ohanian explains to Vogue. “But on top of everything she was going through, the feeling of not being able to help made it even harder. Consider for a moment that your body is one of the greatest things on this planet, and you’re trapped in it.”
That’s just one of the ways the first couple of months of motherhood tested Williams, and she admits to not always feeling as though she could pass those tests.
“Sometimes I get really down and feel like, man, I can’t do this,” Williams says. “It’s that same negative attitude I have on the court sometimes. I guess that’s just who I am. No one talks about the low moments — the pressure you feel, the incredible letdown every time you hear the baby cry.”
She adds, “I’ve broken down I don’t know how many times. Or I’ll get angry about the crying, then sad about being angry, and then guilty, like, ‘Why do I feel so sad when I have a beautiful baby?’ The emotions are insane.”
RELATED VIDEO: A Perfect Match! Serena Williams and Alexis Ohanian Are Married
But strength — a guiding principle in Williams’ life and one of the reasons she says she gave her daughter such a powerful name — carried Williams through. In November, she and Ohanian got married. And as millions of followers of the couple and their daughter see on Instagram, the family is doing well.
They’re even considering more children … though, understandably, Williams is “in no rush.”
Until then, she and her daughter (whom she calls “Olympia” and Ohanian calls “Junior”) are remaining close. “We’re not spending a day apart until she’s 18,” Williams says, only half-joking.