I Believe Doctors Ignored Serena Williams (Because it Happened To Me Too)

September 1, 2017 is a date eternally etched into my memory. The pain I felt that day was so great that I was convinced I was going to die. I remember lying on the cold floor of my apartment in the fetal position next to a pile of my own vomit. I remember crawling across my living room floor for my cell phone to call my parents, who lived across the country, in tears. And I remember my mother suggesting that I change out of my sweatpants before I returned to the emergency room because she feared the nurses and doctors would be dismissive of my pain if I wasn’t well-dressed. 

As a pediatrician, my mother understands the politics of respectability as it relates to healthcare in America. A Black patient in the emergency room is already more likely to receive subpar care. A poorly dressed Black patient is a recipe for a medical disaster. Despite my fever and the throbbing pain in my uterus, I knew my mother was right. I managed to slip into something more presentable before stumbling outside to my Uber.

Less than 24 hours prior, I had shown up at my local urgent care in sweatpants and an old white T-Shirt. The doctor, a young white man, was dismissive of my pain when I told him about the sharp stabbing sensation in my uterus. Initially, he suggested I go home and sleep it off. When he checked my paperwork and saw that I was an attorney, his attitude changed.

“Why didn’t you tell me you were a lawyer?” he asked. “I guess that means I have to keep you alive.” He laughed. I did not. Then he suggested that I visit the emergency room, just in case.

My experience in the emergency room was just as frustrating. I sat and waited for hours, hunched over in pain. When the doctor finally examined me, he quickly decided without running one single test that I was fine and insisted the pain would pass. I told him that I knew my body and that something was terribly wrong, but my concerns were dismissed just like they had been at urgent care earlier that evening. He sent me home alone with some painkillers and encouraged me to sleep it off.

My second trip to the emergency room the next day confirmed that my suspicions had been correct all along. Something was terribly wrong. I had a serious infection in my uterus that could have led to infertility or sepsis, a potentially life-threatening condition that occurs when the body’s response to an infection damages its own tissue. Since I don’t yet have any children, I still don’t know how the infection will affect my ability to conceive. Had the doctors taken my concerns seriously from the beginning, the infection wouldn’t have become so severe.

I had flashbacks to my own experience as I read about tennis superstar Serena William’s near-death experience at the hospital after giving birth to her now four-year-old daughter. In her essay published by Elle Magazine, she shared that the blood clots found in her arteries and lungs post-labor could have killed her. Like me, she expressed to her health care providers that something was wrong. Like me, she was initially ignored.

Nonetheless, like Black women are so often forced to do, Serena became her own fierce advocate. She insisted that her doctors perform a CAT scan of her lungs, but they told her the medicine was just making her talk crazy. Again, she insisted. When they finally performed the CAT scan, they found a blood clot in her lungs.

One point, Serena.

The hospital should be the last place on earth where Black women are forced to fight for their own lives, but statistics show that’s exactly what’s happening. A recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that Black women are nearly three times more likely to die after childbirth than White women. Vice President Kamala Harris called the “systemic inequities” that affect Black pregnant mothers a “matter of life and death.”

It’s not just Black expectant mothers who our healthcare system is failing. In a 2022 research article from Health Affairs, the authors share that Black women are overrepresented in the healthcare sector and heavily concentrated in low wage jobs. More than one in five Black women in the labor force is employed in the healthcare sector, but they are much more likely to be employed in low-wage positions than their White counterparts.

The issues Black women face as it pertains to our physical health cannot be divorced from the state of our mental health. In January of 2022, former Miss USA Cheslie Kryst, a Black woman, died by suicide. In June of 2020, This is Us writer Jas Waters, another Black woman, also died by suicide. For me, these untimely deaths were sobering reminders that even money, fame, and success are not shields from the emotional trauma plaguing Black women.

A wise older man once told me that it’s important to remember our pain. Remembering the depth and the fullness of our most painful moments not only makes us that much more grateful in joyous seasons, but it can also serve as a catalyst for change – change in behavior, change in perspective, or even a change in policy.

I do not share my experiences with people because I want sympathy. I share my experiences because I want change. I believe the pain I experienced in the emergency room on September 1, 2017, together with the pain Serena experienced after the birth of her daughter, and the pain of so many other Black women who our healthcare systems have failed, can serve as a catalyst for change. 

Racism in healthcare is a public health crisis. Unless we take measured steps to address the crisis, Black women in America will continue to suffer, and in some cases, prematurely lose their lives.