Education is the basis for a lifetime of preventative and proactive well-being. Our dream is for people to have unbiased reproductive health information and knowledge of their own bodies in order to successfully navigate a complex health care system. Through education, we will empower each other with information and encourage questions in order to improve health outcomes for people during menstruation, childbirth, menopause, and any abnormalities in between.
In 2006, The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommended using the menstrual cycle as a vital sign (http://bit.ly/1j2SW3m) --The Fifth Vital Sign, as we’ve dubbed it. We too want the menstrual cycle to be taken seriously as an essential indicator of health. Besides helping monitor normal development, the fifth vital sign can help diagnose medical conditions such as endometriosis, thyroid issues, and infections, as well as indicate miscarriage and the beginnings of pregnancy and menopause. Our bodies have much to say, and it’s time to start listening.
Our hope is that by better understanding the menstrual cycle and viewing it as an indicator of health, people will:
- feel more secure, safe, and connected to their bodies, especially during times of transition, like pregnancy and menopause, and during illness
- be able to come to their healthcare providers with more detailed information about their bodies, and more specific questions to contribute to their care
- make birth control decisions with self awareness
- dissipate the culture of shame and embarrassment around menstruation, especially for people during their first period, or menarche
We want to take a closer look at our reproductive health care. There has been a “one-size-fits-all” approach to reproductive health, despite the evidence that a more individualized approach is necessary. 63% of women who stop taking the pill do so because of unwanted side effects (http://1.usa.gov/1aSMgZX), and unintended pregnancy rates remain as high as 50% in the United States (http://1.usa.gov/1OnRrrz).
Big Pharma has minimized the dangers of hormonal birth controls, such as Nuva Ring, Depo-Provera, and Yasmin, but their risks are becoming more apparent as the deaths and grave injuries directly caused by these medications gain publicity (http://bit.ly/1DP23bF http://bit.ly/1ZqI8tZ ). All medications come with a risk, but these are designed for people that are well. Consequently, we have to look further and provide people with safer options.
Access to unbiased reproductive health information is especially critical now with the intense and continued politicization of women’s bodies. The need for this project is confirmed daily by news reports and new research indicating the risks of over-medicating women’s bodies.
In response to this and the growing number of women reaching out to her with concerns, Emily developed and now successfully practices the idea of a ‘birth control doula’--someone who helps women in making the transition from one form of birth control to another (safer) option.
THE FIFTH VITAL SIGN
"The concept of body literacy occurred to me after I read a novel illustrating the disempowering impact of illiteracy. The inability to read diminishes self esteem and opportunities to participate in the exchange of ideas. The connection to the lives of girls and women is obvious—the education of girls is a key strategy in all international development work. It struck me that most educated women in developed countries live with another kind of illiteracy—they are not taught to“read” or understand their own bodies. On the contrary, they are taught to distrust their bodies and accept various artificial means to “manage” them." –Laura Wershler from “Femme Fertile”
In order to realize our vision of body literacy and access to unbiased reproductive health information for all, we will drive to university campuses, clinics, public organizations, media outlets, community spaces, and homes—wherever we are called—to discuss:
- hormonal and non-hormonal birth control
- menstrual cycle awareness and charting
- feminine hygiene products
- self breast exams
- radical consent
- how to discuss options with your health care provider
This information is applicable and important for everyone from adolescents to adults. We hope to teach to all ages, and will tailor our curriculum appropriately.
Classes are entirely free, and we will distribute our teaching materials and slides digitally, so the the information is easily and openly accessible. It is our goal to distribute the materials in Spanish as well.
It is imperative for us to do this work in person and on the road, to listen to your stories and look you in the eye. Feminist Gloria Steinem writes in her recent memoir, 'My Life On The Road,' “If I had to name the most important discovery of my life, it would be the portable community of talking circles; groups that gather with all five senses, and allow consciousness to change.”
We hope that you all will become Fifth Vital Sign ambassadors, sharing this information and our materials with your friends and family, continuing a dialogue on and offline.
To amplify our impact, we will document our journey and lessons through written and video blogs, a website, and other social media outlets like Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat. We will have an interactive online component to the curriculum on our website for those who can’t attend events or have follow-up questions. This is a launch pad for what will become a permanent and lasting project. An important part of this road trip is giving people a voice. We are applying for 501c3 non-profit status and want to continue to be a resource and connector for a growing number of Fifth Vital Sign ambassadors. Emily in her role as birth control doula would like to make birth control doula services available to anyone who feels extra support is needed, and she will train more birth control doulas in the future.
The Timeline We will run the Kickstarter campaign for 28 days, the average length of a menstrual cycle. The start date of our trip is March, in order to avoid the coldest months. We will cross the United States by car in three months, making planned and impromptu stops where we are needed and asked for. We have connections around the country, including: New York City, Philadelphia, Washington DC (Georgetown, George Washington University), Chapel Hill (The University of North Carolina), Raleigh (NC State and Meredith College), Durham (Duke University), Charlotte, Asheville, Atlanta, Savannah, Miami, Tampa, New Orleans, Austin (University of Texas), San Antonio, Dallas (SMU), Los Angeles, San Francisco (Google campus), Palo Alto (Stanford), Portland, Walla, Walla, WA (Walla Walla University), and Seattle.
WHY WE NEED YOUR SUPPORT
We are part of a movement that is questioning contraception choices and demanding truly informed consent. Supporters include movement figureheads Ricki Lake, Abby Epstein, Holly Grigg-Spall, and Erika Langhart’s Foundation (http://www.informedchoiceforamerika.com/). We are so thankful for this support system. The grassroots nature of our project is extremely important to us as well, and your donations are helping our communities and helping people take charge of their health. Our collective effort will propel our mission forward. We are asking for $6,000 to purchase a projector, used car, car insurance, gasoline, camera equipment, and to cover living costs. We hope to distribute as much teaching material electronically as possible, in order to keep our costs down and be mindful of sustainability. These funds are specifically to enable us to deliver a 3 month tour of as many stops as we possibly can make offering as many classes as we can!
WHAT MORE CAN YOU DO TO HELP?
- Follow us on social media and via our website—post comments, check-in with us, ask questions, and spread the word to your friends and family.
- Send us a #fifthvitalsign selfie!
- Invite us to your community! If you are part of an organization or know one that would be interested in hosting us, please make an introduction. If you would like us to come to your home (within the continental US), we will be there.
- We will leave behind our materials for you to share in turn as ambassadors of this information. We will always make ourselves available as a resource and for follow-up questions.
Emily Varnam is a trained birth and postpartum doula, midwife assistant, birth control doula, placenta encapsulation specialist, and holds a degree in counseling and mentoring. She has been working with newborns and families since age seven and her goal is to be able to take women's hands during puberty and walk with them through every stage of reproductive health. She is experienced in many types of birth, including home, birth center, hospital, VBAC, twin birth, and more. She is passionate about family and believes in meeting people where they are. Currently applying to midwifery school, she loves all things birth and is very active in the birth community, forming strong connections with nurses and providers to create a circle of care. She lives in Brooklyn with Kelsey Knight, her best friend, and enjoys cooking for lots of friends and holding women's circles.
Her practice as a birth control doula has taken her to classes, talks and ob/gyn visits with clients. She has been tracking her cycle for the past 3 years and is currently awaiting acceptance into the Justisse Method program to continue her studies as she feels a standard of care must be upheld within the field and wants to offer to best possible information to people. In 2014 Emily developed and began offering a class called ‘My Vagina, My Business’ in which she shared information about fertility awareness method, feminine hygiene products, birth control methods and breast health.
Kelsey Knight is a labor and delivery registered nurse in New York City. Her active interest in women’s health began while peeing in a nursing school toilet, where she saw an ad for a doula training on the bathroom stall door. She took the training and volunteered as an intrapartum doula, opening her eyes to the imperatives of patient advocacy, informed consent, and health as a human right. She subsequently pursued a nursing career in in-patient obstetrics, and is certified as a lactation counselor (CLC) and childbirth educator. She is a member of the Association of Women’s Health, Obstetric, and Neonatal Nurses (AWHONN) and the New York State Nurse’s Association (NYSNA). She’s also interested in documenting women’s stories. She completed a 12-week certification in filmmaking at New York Film Academy. She lives in Brooklyn with her best friend Emily Varnam, and enjoys eating the food Emily cooks, and knitting.
Kelsey and Emily met in March 2014 at a talk given by famous midwife Ina May Gaskin. They quickly became friends and saw the benefit of joining forces.
Emily has been able to provide doula care to Kelsey's nursing patients, and Kelsey has been able able to work collaboratively with doulas as they come into the hospital.
In the summer of 2015 they co-created the Hail to the V podcast, a space to share medicinal stories (http://hailtothev.podbean.com/) and to highlight people’s health issues they felt were underserved. They are now roommates and co-conspirators* in Brooklyn, NY.
* In explaining how nurses, doulas and providers work together, Emily told her Dad we are able to 'conspire to get better outcomes for birthing people.' Emily's Dad explained that conspire is a word that often has negative connotations but actually comes from 'respire' or 'to breathe,' so in being co-conspirators, in a sense, we breathe together. We invite you to also be our co- conspirators.
Thank you to our early and amazing co - conspirators:
Abby Epstein and Ricki Lake at BOBB Films
Holly Grigg - Spall - Author 'Sweetening the Pill, Or How We Got Hooked on Hormonal Birth Control'
Informed Consent for Amerika
Jessica Griger and Natalie Rechberg from Valley Electronics
Orien Mcneill of Penelopi Jones
Also, special thanks to Anthony Sneed for his help in shooting the opening clip of our video and to Julian Weller for contributing an original song to the video. To our friends and family, we love you. Thank you for everything.
Risks and challenges
We may struggle to find an audience. We want to reach people whose lack of information limits their choices. We don’t want to just be preaching to the choir. Our ideas may seem radical in some areas. In this eventuality, we will ask a representative inside the organization/school/community/clinic to advertise on our behalf, and we will host in an independent space. We will also protect the identities of those involved. We understand that in some communities this information is taboo. Giving information is more important to us than making a statement.
We have already begun to make personal connections with potential supporters and hosts. We are part of a network of birth workers and reproductive rights activists, many of whom have already pledged to host, and they will be able to help us find audiences we may not otherwise be able to access as visitors in each city. Our social media campaign will be extensive. We are mobile with our car, and our schedule is intentionally flexible, because we want to be able to access as many people as possible and go where we are needed.Learn about accountability on Kickstarter
- (28 days)