Serena Williams’ Medical Knowledge Saved Her Life-Symptoms of Blood Clots Everyone Should Know

Written By Melissa Jabour

In a recent Vogue magazine article,[1] tennis great Serena Williams shared a terrifying experience she had following the birth of her daughter. She recounted an episode in which hospital employees did not take seriously her concern that she was experiencing a pulmonary embolism (“PE”), which is a sudden blockage of an artery in the lung by a blood clot.

The day after her daughter was born via cesarean section, Ms. Williams was having trouble breathing. Because she has a history of blood clots and was not taking her blood thinner due to her recent surgery, Ms. Williams immediately assumed she was having another PE. According to Ms. Williams, she alerted a nurse to what she believed was happening and asked for a CT scan and a blood thinner, but the nurse suggested that her pain medication may have been making her confused. After Ms. Williams insisted that something was wrong, a doctor instead performed an ultrasound of her legs. When the ultrasound came back as normal, Ms. Williams underwent a CT scan, which showed several small blood clots in her lungs. She was immediately put on blood thinners and is, fortunately, recovering.

This story illustrates the importance of being your own advocate as a patient. Ms. Williams was able to alert her doctors and other health care providers to the fact that she was having a PE because she was aware of the signs and symptoms of this life-threatening condition.

According to the Mayo Clinic, “[i]n most cases, pulmonary embolism is caused by blood clots that travel to the lungs from the legs or, rarely, other parts of the body (deep vein thrombosis).”[2] Because the clots impede blood flow to the lungs, PE can be fatal, although prompt treatment reduces the risk of death. Symptoms of PE can vary greatly; however, common signs and symptoms include the following:

  • Shortness of breath. This often appears suddenly and worsens with exertion
  • Chest pain. The pain will likely get worse with exertion but does not go away at rest.
  • Cough. It may produce bloody or blood-streaked sputum.

Other signs and symptoms of PE include:

  • Leg pain/swelling, usually in the calf
  • Clammy/discolored skin
  • Fever
  • Excessive sweating
  • Rapid or irregular heartbeat
  • Lightheadedness/dizziness

[1] Rob Haskell, “Serena Williams on Motherhood, Marriage, and Making Her Comeback,” Vogue, available at https://www.vogue.com/article/serena-williams-vogue-cover-interview-february-2018.

[2] Mayo Clinic, “Pulmonary Embolism,” available at https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/pulmonary-embolism/symptoms-causes/syc-20354647.