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Recovering Safely After a High-Risk Pregnancy

The push toward patient empowerment is getting an extra boost as Serena Williams shares publicly the life-threatening medical complication she developed after giving birth.

The pro tennis phenom and new mother has been vocal about having to insist she be tested and treated for pulmonary embolism, a condition she felt was coming on. Her story is spotlighting high-risk pregnancies and encouraging others to speak up if something doesn’t feel right.

“The anatomic changes in a woman’s body during pregnancy can increase the risk of several medical conditions, including blood clots,” said Ellen Schwartzbard, M.D. [1], an obstetrician and gynecologist with Baptist Health Medical Group [2]. “An increase in blood volume during pregnancy and changes in hormonal status can make blood clots more easily. And the weight of a growing baby compressing the main vein in the abdomen, and not being as mobile as usual, can affect blood flow.”

The day after having a c-section to deliver her daughter, Serena felt short of breath and told her nurse. Having difficulty breathing, or shortness of breath, is a warning sign of a pulmonary embolism – a potential deadly condition that blocks arteries in the lungs. After insisting she needed immediate medical attention, a test confirmed Serena had blood clots in her lungs.

This doesn’t mean all pregnant women need to necessarily worry about getting a blood clot or pulmonary embolism, Dr. Schwartzbard adds.

“Genetic factors are important when evaluating a patient for a high-risk pregnancy,” Dr. Schwartzbard said. “One of the strongest risk factors for developing blood clots during pregnancy is having them previously in life, like Serena did.”

And not all pregnant women who experience shortness of breath are developing blood clots, Dr. Schwartzbard cautions.

Being short of breath can be a common symptom throughout pregnancy for a number of reasons. During the first trimester, the woman’s body is adapting to changing hormonal levels and working harder to supply oxygen to a growing fetus.  As the pregnancy progresses, the increasing size of a growing baby pushing up against a woman’s lungs and diaphragm can make breathing more difficult.

The condition of pregnancy itself can pose multiple medical risks, says Dr. Schwartzbard.  Complications during pregnancy or delivery affect more than 50,000 women each year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“You always want to be aware of changes your body is going through and inform your doctor about any type of discomfort,” she emphasizes.

The adage about knowing your own body best came in handy for Serena and is an important message.

“If something feels different than the way you felt before, always tell your doctor,” Dr. Schwartzbard said. “Be vigilant.  Especially when it comes to pregnancies, you never want to miss a serious problem.”