Relaxing in an oversize chair in the living room of her Bel Air, Calif., home, surrounded by "get well" flower bouquets, Serena Williams looks toward the stairs. "I can walk up and down now without gasping for air," she says. "That's the first time in weeks."
It's a triumph the 29-year-old tennis superstar treasures as much as her 27 Grand Slam titles. For on Feb. 18, after a routine flight back from New York, Williams found herself inexplicably struggling to breathe. The cause: a pulmonary embolism, a potentially fatal blood clot that had traveled to her lungs (see box). Arriving at the hospital in critical condition, the 2010 Wimbledon champ was told by doctors that if she'd delayed going to the emergency room, "I could have died," Williams says, tearing up. Despite learning that part of one lung was damaged, and despite needing to be on blood thinners for months, she's planning to get back on the court as soon as possible. "I'm lucky I'm alive," she says.
Her medical ordeal was a frightening setback for Williams, who has struggled with tendon and other injuries requiring three surgeries, including two on her right foot. While in New York to see a doctor about those issues, she noticed that her left foot-the one not in a soft boot-was swollen. "Huh, this is weird," she thought, but she was so focused on her other foot that she forgot to ask her doctor about it. She boarded a return flight to L.A. and, she says, "I slept the whole flight."
By the time she landed, "my foot was huge," the 5'10" athlete says. "Imagine the size of my thigh, just above my knee; that's how big my foot was." What's more, as she hobbled through the airport, "I was huffing and puffing," she says. "I couldn't walk and talk at the same time. I couldn't breathe." Still, her first reaction wasn't alarm: "I thought, 'Wow, I'm really out of shape. I need to go to the gym.'" Once in her car, she called big sister (and fellow tennis icon) Venus, 30, who was at the gym with their physical therapist Esther Lee. "You have a blood clot," Williams recalls them telling her. "You have to go to a doctor!" In fact, Serena had suffered a blood clot in her leg after a 2003 surgery, but it was painful and she had no shortness of breath. "I kept telling [Venus], 'No, no, no! I don't have a blood clot.' I thought, 'I'm just going to put my foot in a bucket of ice when I get home.'"
Her reluctance to seek help wasn't mere athlete's bravado. In 2003 her family had been shattered by the fatal shooting of Williams' beloved sister Yetunde Price. "We've been through a lot," she says. "I didn't want to be a burden." But two hours after getting back to her house, Williams heard Lee at the door; her therapist drove her straight to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. Even in the ER, as doctors ran test after test, Williams says, "I still wasn't scared. I'm thinking, 'I have meetings, I need some rest.' I see doctors all the time." Finally she got the shocking news: Williams had several clots on her lungs, any one of which could be fatal. "I thought," Williams recalls, "'This can't be happening to me. I don't want to die.'" Says Dr. Robert Wolfe, her pulmonary specialist: "Her situation was very dangerous." Wolfe says Williams' clot was most likely caused by her inability to move around much after her surgery last fall-and several recent long plane rides.
Williams also learned the clots destroyed a small portion of lung tissue, news that terrified her. "I was crying," she says. "My lungs are my career. Did this mean my career was over?" Learning she could make a full recovery, "there was so much relief," she says. "Now I have the chance to come back."
The road so far has been rocky. Just a day out of the hospital, recovering at home, Williams didn't feel right. Lying on the couch, "I was crying, I just didn't want to get up. I just kept thinking, 'When is this all going to end?' What if I was dying? I just had a breakdown." Then she discovered a tennis-ball-size lump on her stomach, right where she'd been injecting herself with blood thinner on doctor's orders. "I started panicking," Williams says. "I thought I had a tumor." It turned out to be a hematoma-a localized pooling of blood and a common complication of her treatment-that required surgery. On Feb. 28 Williams went in, leaving with a blood-drainage tube in the tissue in her abdominal wall that will be removed later this month.
For now, she's taking it a day at a time. "I'm exhausted," she admits. Her instinct is to start hitting balls as soon as she has the strength, but she must take a blood thinner for at least three months, and a fall while on such medication could cause dangerous bleeding. "One of my doctors said, 'If I were you, I wouldn't play again,'" Williams recalls. "I said, 'You're not me.'" She hopes to be competing by summer. "I like having a challenge," she says. "And this will be my biggest challenge yet."