What we can learn from Serena Williams' complicated birth

January 25, 2018

It is crucial that women be aware of childbirth risks, warning signs, and symptoms

Serena Williams recently shared her frightening birth experience, highlighting both the potential complications of childbirth and the disparity in maternal mortality among different groups of women in the United States. 

According to media reports, Ms. Williams had a history of blood clots, and at the time of her delivery experienced another series of blood clots in her lungs. This is a life-threatening condition requiring immediate treatment which she fortunately received. She went on to have further problems related to her treatment, but happily is apparently recovering.
 
It is important for all of us to know that serious medical complications and even death can occur in pregnancy and childbirth. While rare, statistics suggest that rates may be rising. Experts believe this is both due to a true increase in complications and improvement in reporting as many states have strived to recognize and address the problem. 
 
The most common reasons for maternal death are uncontrolled bleeding, high blood pressure, infection, blood clots, heart disease and other medical conditions. Rates of many of these have been decreasing, but death due to cardiovascular disease (including stroke) and other medical conditions have not.
Some of the risk factors for severe illness and death in pregnancy and delivery include older maternal age, underlying medical conditions (including obesity) and placental problems. It is also clear that for a variety of reasons there is excess risk in women of color, especially non-Hispanic black women.

Other populations at higher risk are women living in poverty and those with decreased access to care. Around 50 percent of births in the U.S. are to moms receiving Medicaid. These mothers are a vital part of the more than 20 million people with Medicaid coverage who access care at Providence St. Joseph Health. Meet the many faces of Medicaid and read their stories of hope for the future.
 
It is crucial that women be aware of their risks as well as warning signs and symptoms. Early detection and prompt treatment may be life-saving. Many hospitals and health care systems, including Providence St. Joseph Health, are focusing on early detection and standardized rapid response and treatment for the most common conditions, significantly improving outcomes. Examples include prevention, early recognition and treatment of hypertension, hemorrhage and blood clots. Consider asking your providers how they and your hospital are prepared.
 
Losing a new mother is an unfathomable tragedy. We need to continue to improve patient and provider awareness and communication as we simultaneously work to effectively address social determinants of health.
 
Tanya Sorensen, MD, is a maternal-fetal medicine physician at Swedish Maternal and Fetal Specialty Center in Seattle.