The Fifth Vital Sign: A Nurse And A Doula Road Trip For Menstrual Health

Emily Varnam and Kelsey Knight of The Fifth Vital Sign <3

Emily Varnam and Kelsey Knight of The Fifth Vital Sign <3

If 2015 was the year of the period, 2016 might just be the year of perioducation. The two gals behind The Fifth Vital Sign are set on taking that perioducation on the road, across the country, and maybe, at some point, to a theater near you.

Best friends Emily Varnam and Kelsey Knight are two Brooklyn-based period-positive powerhouses ready to drop some serious, and vital, knowledge. Their plan? To travel across the country making more than 45 60 stops over the course of three months giving free talks on body literacy and promoting better access to unbiased reproductive health information. Officially starting March 1, their tour will take them to university campuses, clinics, community spaces, you name it, to raise awareness on topics like birth control options, menstrual tracking, breast health, and choices in feminine hygiene products, to mention just a few.

But their big mission, their huge undertaking, is all about building a better understanding of the menstrual cycle and changing our cultural (and medical) perception of it to be an indicator of health—the fifth vital sign.

We recently snagged Emily and Kelsey away from their busy lives as a birth and postpartum doula/midwife assistant, and a labor and delivery nurse/doula (respectively) to answer a few questions about their mission and their upcoming cross-country road trip, which they’re currently raising funds for on kickstarter. (Heads up: today is the final day to contribute!)

All questions were answered together—they are best friends who live together, share a common passion, and probably finish each other’s sentences on the regular!—except where noted.

OK, let’s start at the beginning with the super broad…how did this all come about?

Kelsey: The universe was sending us several messages at once about how necessary this project is!

First, as a doula, Emily has her ear to the ground in her community and is a trusted information source for reproductive health. Several friends began to consult her about coming off hormonal birth control, not to get pregnant, but in order to be more in touch with their bodies and to stop experiencing side effects from their hormonal birth control.

Second, we read Sweetening the Pill: Or How We Got Hooked On Hormonal Birth Control, and Emily interviewed the author, Holly Grigg-Spall, realizing how much dangerous misinformation existed about hormonal birth control.

Third, at the hospital, we both witnessed people have their choices either taken away from them or not fully explained during labor. We started to feel that in order to truly empower people about their reproductive health choices, we needed to reach them way before they got pregnant.

In response, Emily created and began to practice the idea of a birth control doula, someone who helps people transition from one form of birth control to another, safer one. She also 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.

We saw the strong response to these classes in this community and wondered about the reproductive health needs of the rest of the country. We wanted to both spread vital, unbiased, reproductive health information to as many as people as possible, and have the opportunity to hear people’s stories and start a nationwide conversation, which they hope to continue after this trip. Thus, the Fifth Vital Sign was born, and our maiden voyage — this trip — was set!

Why now?

Because we don’t want it to wait another day. The need for this project is confirmed daily by news reports and new research indicating the risks of over-medicating women’s bodies. Fortunately, we are part of a movement that is questioning contraception choices and demanding truly informed consent.

We are all on the road toward reproductive justice together.

Some people might not know the top 4 vital signs (one could take a good guess: they’re body temp, blood pressure, heart rate, respiratory rate). What makes menstruation the fifth?  

The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommended using the menstrual cycle as a vital sign –The Fifth Vital Sign, as we’ve dubbed it. 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. On a personal level, learning more about our fifth vital sign has been transformative and we want to share that with other people.

What’s the most important point you want to get across with your campaign and travels?

We want people to value their own and each other’s bodies. We would love if people left the classes with knowledge about their menstrual cycles, but the most important thing to us is that people know that they have options. We want to move away from fear-based education.

You recently released your tour dates. Where are you most excited to stop?

We are most excited to stop anywhere this information is needed. We want to reach people whose current lack of information limits their choices. Also, a girl can be excited to have a beignet in New Orleans and Tex-Mex from the source :).

Emily: I’m super excited to leave NYC — I’ve been on call for the last two years and havn’t even wanted to go upstate as I like to stay close to my clients if they need me. Nature is definitely calling us both! We will definitely be updating our instagram @thefifthvitalsign with lots of adventure pics.

This sounds like the makings of a documentary. Will there be one to follow?

We will be filming and blogging along the way and updating our site regularly. We have also invited Abby Epstein and Ricki Lake along as they are working on a movie called Sweetening the Pill (based on a the book of the same name by Holly Grigg-Spall) so they will be able to document some of it, too. We also have a podcast that we will be updating.

Emily, you’re a ‘birth control doula’ which is a role we’ve been hearing more about, recently. Can you tell us why you think it’s an important and growing field?

Emily: I think it’s important because as much as I want to say that things can change with access to information alone. Change is big, and scary and the shift towards more autonomy and interaction with our reproductive health requires a certain amount of hand holding. It goes back to what Gloria Steinem says about meeting in all five senses.

[Ed note: Emily is referring to Gloria Steinem’s new memoir My Life On The Road, in which she said, “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.”]

Your dream is to have “unbiased reproductive health information” available. If we FINALLY arrived at that point in our society, what would it look like to you?

We feel that the shift away from big pharma would be huge. If risks were properly communicated we feel not as many people would want to use oral contraceptives and things like the NuvaRing. We also feel that people would know more about their bodies and so be able to ask for more. For example, people would be more empowered to advocate for the care they feel comfortable with during childbirth. A lot of why we began this was after seeing how much people give up once they walk into a hospital.

With more knowledge and more readily available information comes more power.

Now to some practical Qs. That’s a lot of driving, will you be rolling with a crew or just the two of you?

Just us two for the whole thing; however, Holly Grigg- Spall will be joining us for some stops.

Have you ever road-tripped before?

Emily: I actually lived in a bus when I was little so I was used to being on the road. I’m excited to be traveling again.

Kelsey: I grew up driving between Texas and Arkansas to see my Grandparents, and between Texas to North Carolina during college, but this is the longest road trip I’ve ever taken!

What are your biggest concerns going on such a big trip?

We are actually both feeling pretty great about it right now. This project is driven by love, friendship and the kindness of strangers so we feel it will all work out. We do worry that we may be tired. We haven’t planned many days off — we feel that since we received such generous financial support that we want to do it justice!

Sounds like you’ll have plenty of time for good road-tripping music. What’s on your road trip playlist?

Beyonce is definitely a big favorite! Formation just dropped so that’s gonna be exciting to get into. Also London Grammar are a band that we could listen to all day.

(Kelsey: Emily will probably sing Adele until I leave her on the side of the road!)

A couple of friends are making us playlists and we are open to suggestions. We also have some favorite podcasts: Fertility Friday (Holly Grigg-Spall is featured in two of their episodes!), The Birth Hour, The Birthful, This American Life and TED Radio Hour.

We have to ask, as road trip veterans, do you have favorite snacks?

So glad you asked. Of course a big concern as we both LOVE eating. We are slightly worried about being on long drives where we just can’t really stop for food or get fresh stuff. We have a plan to ferment some vegetables so we’re getting enough probiotic goodness — we know how important gut health is! Neither of us drinks coffee at the moment but we’ve decided that it may need to happen at some point!

Power duo: Emily's freebleeding Wonder Woman; Kelsey driving to pick up donations for homeless pregnant teens

Power duo: Emily’s freebleeding Wonder Woman; Kelsey driving to pick up donations for homeless pregnant teens

Our final question might as well have been…can we come, too?! Instead, though, we’ll send them our support and cycledarity. May the road rise up to meet you, ladies, and then sit down to have a nice chat about body literacy and undoing menstrual taboos.

Be sure to check out The Fifth Vital Sign kickstarter and stay in touch via their podcast and instagram. We’ll be keeping up with their travels here on Cycledork, as well.

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