Serena Williams Overcomes Severe Vein Disease

Pulmonary Emboli Couldn’t Stop Serena WilliamsOut of all of the topics to circulate after the Wimbledon tournament in London, vein disease is not typically one of them. While varicose veins or spider veins might stand out against the traditional white garments of the Wimbledon athletes, this year’s championship circle talk concerned a much more serious condition: the pulmonary embolism that left Serena Williams in the hospital fighting for her life just over one year ago.

Serena Williams has made what many people consider to be an epic comeback in the world of tennis. Just over one year ago, Serena was undergoing emergency surgery for the treatment of a pulmonary embolism (PE), which is a blood clot that develops in the legs and works its way to the lungs.

This past weekend, Serena Williams won the women’s single championship match, and then paired up with her sister Venus later that afternoon to take the trophy home for women’s doubles as well. That leaves Serena Williams with two Wimbledon championship trophies in one afternoon—a feat that might have seemed like a dream when she was undergoing emergency surgery last year.

Vein Disease and PE

A pulmonary embolism most often develops as a result of deep vein thrombosis or DVT. A PE occurs when a blood clot forms in the deep veins of the leg and travels gradually to a lung artery where it creates a blockage. If left untreated, a PE can be fatal, causing permanent damage to the lung and inhibiting oxygen flow.

Though a lot of people mistake the darkened veins as a risk of a serious health problem, having varicose veins or spider veins appear in your legs is not a warning sign of DVT. Instead, DVT is marked by areas of redness, tenderness, pain and/or swelling in the leg.

Blood clots can develop for a variety of reasons. Since being sedentary is one risk factor for developing blood clots, a lot of people think that it could never happen to someone who is active—but that is not true, as sometimes athletes are at an increased risk for DVT. Other risk factors for DVT and PE include smoking, being overweight, injuring your leg and being immobilized after surgery.

In the case of Serena Williams, it would appear that an unexpected injury coupled with a long surgical recovery is the culprit that brought her down. While walking in a restaurant in Munich two years ago, Serena stepped on a piece of broken glass. Since she was wearing sandals at the time, the glass penetrated both feet, resulting in deep cuts that lacerated a tendon. As a result of the freak injury, Serena needed to undergo several operations that left her temporarily immobile.

Serena developed multiple blood clots that all traveled to her lungs. The pulmonary emboli left her short of breath and caused swelling in her legs. She was initially treated with anticoagulants or blood thinners, but after a CT scan revealed that a collection of blood clots or hematoma developed into the size of a grapefruit she was rushed into surgery.

While Wimbledon is half a world away from those of us concerned with vein disease in Atlanta or Marietta, Serena’s experience with DVT and PE is a lesson to us all. She came about the disease unexpectedly and experienced considerable setbacks in her athletic career as a result, but she worked through the disease and reached the top of her game once again. Serena attests that her recovery period was long, but she was patient and she did everything her physicians advised her to, and she took home two Wimbledon trophies this summer as a result.


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