How to make sure doctors take your postpartum complications seriously

When new moms have complications after giving birth, they sometimes have to fight to be taken seriously—even Serena Williams.

Photo: iStockphoto

When it comes to postpartum health, it doesn’t matter who you are. From the biggest celebrity to the everywoman next door, being vigilant about your health after you’ve delivered the baby is as important as it was before the baby arrived.

Take the following example. Serena Williams, who gave birth to daughter Alexis in September 2017, recently revealed just how hard she had to advocate for herself after experiencing a pulmonary embolism the day after having a C-section.

According to an article in Vogue, Williams, who has a history of blood clots, felt short of breath the day following the birth of her baby, so she flagged down a nurse and said she needed “a CT scan with contrast and IV heparin right away.”

Instead of listening to Williams, a doctor did an ultrasound of Williams’ legs. When the ultrasound revealed nothing, Williams was sent for the CT, where, as the tennis star had predicted, several small blood clots were found in her lungs. Within minutes, she was on the blood thinner drip. “I was like, listen to Dr. Williams!”

It’s shocking to think that something like that could happen to Williams—one of the most famous athletes in the world with 23 grand slams under her belt—especially as she has a history of pulmonary embolisms. It just goes to show that it could happen to anyone.

So how do new moms—who are still healing from delivery, learning how to take care of a brand-new human and woefully sleep deprived—advocate for their health postpartum, especially if something feels wrong? We asked some experts to share their tips about ensuring postpartum complications are taken seriously.

Think ahead. “It’s really important to start advocating for yourself from your very first prenatal visit,” says Pari Ghodsi, a OB/GYN hospitalist in Los Angeles. She advises creating a list of your medical history, including any past pregnancy complications, such as preeclampsia or preterm birth, or health issues in general, and making sure your doctor notes everything in your chart. And when you are ready to deliver, feel free to remind your doctors of any past issues and to tell nurses your history as well. Don’t assume they know, and don’t worry about coming off as pushy or repetitive. Your doctors want this information. “It’s always helpful to restate your medical history to someone new caring for you,” says Ghodsi.

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Have a support person. Before giving birth, decide who you want by your side if something goes wrong. “After birth, you’re tired and you may not be as rational,” notes Linda Adler, founder and CEO of Pathfinders Medical, a company that empowers patients to effectively navigate the intricacies of the U.S. health care system. “So before going to the hospital, pick the person you trust to make sure something is going to get done—whether that’s your spouse, mother, sister or friend.” The same can be said for the six-week postpartum checkup. If you have an important issue to discuss, along with your detailed notes, bring your support person along for assistance.

Trust your instincts. According to Alyse Kelly-Jones, an OB/GYN in Charlotte, North Carolina, the three most common complications new moms should watch out for are excessive bleeding, shortness of breath (which can indicate a pulmonary embolism) and infection. “Women are usually really attuned to their bodies, so physicians, for the most part, pay attention when patients say something is wrong,” says Kelly-Jones. That said, “Once you’ve explained your concerns, make sure they are acted on,” adds Adler.

Get a second opinion. “If you don’t think you are being listened to, ask to speak with another nurse or doctor,” advises Adler. And if you have a friend or family member who is a doctor, reach out to him or her. “It’s always an advantage if you have someone in your corner who understands medical terminology and best practices,” she adds.

Remain vigilant. It can take months for your body to feel fully healed after having a baby. If you are still having complications several weeks or many months postpartum, such as an unhealed C-section scar, vaginal pain or pelvic floor issues, don’t be afraid to speak up. The first step is to call your doctor, where you will most likely speak with a nurse. “Nurses are usually really good at understanding what is urgent and what isn’t,” says Ghodsi. “And they should be communicating with your doctor to make sure you are taken care of.”

But in the case that a nurse says you don’t need to be seen, don’t be shy to insist. “Say, ‘I really would prefer to be seen by my doctor,’” says Kelly-Jones. “If you use those words on the phone, there would be no question in my office. You are coming in.” And, adds Ghodsi, if your issue is serious and all else fails, head to the ER. “If you feel you need to be seen, be seen,” she says.

Read more:
Postpartum OCD: When worries about your baby become obsessions
How long will it take for my postpartum belly to go away?

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