5VS Weekly News Round-up

Every Monday we will round-up the articles from last week that have stayed on our minds to share with you all. These are our must-read articles each week.  If there are any articles, podcasts, videos, or content that you want to add to next week's round-up, please email us at thefifthvitalsign@gmail.com. 

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  •  “According to the CDC, black mothers in the U.S. die at three to four times the rate of white mothers, one of the widest of all racial disparities in women’s health.”
  •  “A 2016 analysis of five years of data found that black college-educated mothers who gave birth in local hospitals were more likely to suffer severe complications of pregnancy or childbirth than white women who never graduated from high school. . . It tells you that you can’t educate your way out of this problem. You can’t health-care-access your way out of this problem. There’s something inherently wrong with the system that’s not valuing the lives of black women equally to white women.”
  • “But now many social scientists and medical researchers agree, the problem isn’t race but racism.”
  • “In the more than 200 stories of African-American mothers that ProPublica and NPR have collected over the past year, the feeling of being devalued and disrespected by medical providers was a constant theme.”
  • “But it’s the discrimination that black women experience in the rest of their lives — the double-whammy of race and gender — that may ultimately be the most significant factor in poor maternal outcomes. An expanding field of research shows that the stress of being a black woman in American society can take a significant physical toll during pregnancy and childbirth.”
  • Read more here: https://www.propublica.org/article/nothing-protects-black-women-from-dying-in-pregnancy-and-childbirth?utm_campaign=sprout&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter&utm_content=1512686351
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We’ve been paying close attention to the discussion around net neutrality. This is important to us as internet users, as small business owners, as people who believe in social justice. This Thursday, December 14 the FCC will vote on whether or not to maintain net neutrality. Read more here: https://www.savetheinternet.com/net-neutrality-what-you-need-know-now

The White House Wants to Exclusively Fund Fertility Awareness Programming?!

The White House Policy Wish List recently leaked by Crooked reveals a maniacal focus on fertility awareness methods (FAM) as the best, most tremendous sex ed strategy ever, according to Trump and his aides.  Our first reaction was to wonder how Trump knew of the scientific fertility awareness method, being as outwardly anti-science as he is. Our second was to ask, “Oh God, what does he THINK it means?”  

In March, 2016, we left on a three-month, 15,000 mile road trip across the US to teach over sixty free reproductive health classes on body literacy and how to make informed choices about contraception. We spent half an hour each class discussing fertility awareness, because it can be both birth control and an empowering tool with which to get to know your body. But you know what’s not empowering? Limited access to other forms of contraception and critical information about them. According to the Wish List, abroad "no other family planning programming for girls should be provided except fertility awareness methods." We can simultaneously claim fertility awareness for what it’s worth to each of us and reject Trump’s attack on informed choice.  

What is fertility awareness anyway? On our road trip, we met thousands of people, many of whom had never heard of it. Fertility awareness is an umbrella term for several types of methods. It’s not just another term for the rhythm method. Rhythm or calendar methods are focused on preventing or achieving pregnancy and assume most people ovulate around the same time. Modern methods acknowledge our human variation and value body literacy, in addition to fertility. While it’s unclear which type Trump’s wish list refers to, it’s highly likely, because of who’s at the table, that his version of FAM won’t include barrier methods during fertile times or a focus on knowing your body, but will include abstinence only.

In our classes, we teach the sympto-thermal method of fertility awareness. By charting basal body temperature and checking cervical fluid and positioning daily, it’s possible to identify the day of ovulation, a fertile window, anovulatory cycles, some vaginal infections or STIs, signs of hypothyroidism and polycystic ovarian syndrome, pregnancy, miscarriage, perimenopause, and more. It’s an invitation to listen to and connect with your body throughout your life. Don’t let Trump and the Christian right use a powerful tool for body literacy against us to control our bodies.

We would have loved to know about fertility awareness as adolescents. People with vaginas, when you reached puberty, how many of you knew what that fluid in your underwear was about? Did you think something was wrong? Did you wonder why it was there or where it came from? One class attendee told us about how learning to monitor her cervical fluid saved her life. When she recognized her cervical fluid was abnormal for her, she went to her OB-GYN and was diagnosed with stage 1 cervical cancer at age 25. Fortunately, It was caught early enough to be eradicated through a procedure. Through learning about fertility awareness, another attendee felt confident to transition off of a hormonal birth control method that was causing serious mental health side effects. These are examples of informed decisions that could only be made with access to information about multiple forms of contraception and knowledge of their own bodies.

So, fertility awareness can provide valuable body knowledge that is our right, and it can be used as a form of contraception that can be up to 99.6% effective at preventing pregnancy if used consistently and correctly and 74% effective if used inconsistently and incorrectly. Sweetening the Pill author Holly Grigg Spall says, "its an important precursor to informed consent on all reproductive health related decisions, including which form of contraception is best for you." But none of that is important if fertility awareness is the only option presented to adolescents, because no single contraceptive is a one-size-fits-all solution.

Informed choice is the only ethical alternative to a one-size-fits-all approach that dangerously insists all our bodies, needs, and desires are the same. This wish list not only blinds adolescents to all but one contraceptive method, it also denies them critical information about which and how to choose. To make an informed choice about birth control, we first need a comprehensive list of options. Then, it's important to know the risks and benefits of each option, their efficacy rates in preventing pregnancy and STI transmission, accessibility, affordability, and knowledge of how each method works, and our family history of blood clotting disorders. Next, we have to see if our choice physically and emotionally works for us. Many hormonal birth control options really work for people and many do not, and when they don’t, the side effects range from headaches to mood swings to death. So, do we think that championing only fertility awareness methods will fix this? No. It will further deny individuals the right to make the best decisions for their bodies. An attack on options creates an urgency to choose that can obliterate the process of an informed decision.  Our Facebook inbox is full of time-pressed questions regarding concern over continued contraception availability, and Planned Parenthood’s 900% reported increase in IUD insertion post-election is a testament to this.

We need more choices and information, not less. We know what it means for policies to impact our bodies. Don’t come for us, don’t come for our knowledge, don’t come for our choices, and don’t come for our bodies.



Your Best Fertility Ally: Fellow Fertility Warriors

By Elyse Ash

When my husband Brad and I first started our whole “Let’s Have a Baby!” project back in September 2014, I didn’t tell many people. I naively thought this would be a short-term secret and we’d reveal our pregnancy in a cute, totally viral-worthy way.

Ha. Ha. Hahahahahaha. Oh, so naive.

As this “project” began taking longer and longer, it started seeping into all the other parts of my life. Physically. Financially. Emotionally. I began turning to my friends for emotional support as the fear and anxiety surrounding my infertility started feeling way too heavy for me to carry alone. The support I got from my friends was a mixed bag. While many of them tried to be there for me, it was hard for them to truly empathize with my struggle. They had no idea what to say...

In the summer of 2016, I hit an emotional low after our first cycle of IVF failed. While the cycle yielded two blastocysts, after genetic testing we learned both were abnormal, leaving us no healthy embryos to transfer.

I was heartbroken. No one understood the unique flavor of pain and shame I felt. Well, not NO one...I learned that a select group of people did understand: other fertility warriors who had once been where I was, but were now safely on the other side. They were the only ones who could offer me the support, understanding and perspective I so desperately craved.

It was then I had the idea to create Fruitful, a free fertility mentorship program that connects individuals struggling through infertility with a mentor who has been through it firsthand and is now on the other side.

Brad and I got right to work. He’s a web developer and I’m a copywriter, so together we used our skills to make Fruitful Fertility. We proudly launched the site for National Infertility Awareness Week on April 23 and we could not be more excited about this new project and its potential to help others like us.

To sign up to receive a free mentor or to volunteer to become one, please visit www.FruitfulFertility.org. Or if you just want to follow along, check out our Instagram account @Fruitful_Fertility.

Remember, you are NOT alone.

Elyse Ash is the founder and CEO of Fruitful Fertility. She and her husband Brad have been trying to conceive since September 2014 and live in Minneapolis with their cat Puck. Elyse loves poetry, hockey, social justice, Beyonce and pretending she’s into yoga.


Why We Created Conversations in Community


We feel it’s been some time since we last talked and updated you on our journey. Here’s a recap: Last year, we drove 15,000 miles across the US to offer over 60 free reproductive health classes in three months in order to address a systems-wide gap in accessibility to knowledge about our bodies. We named the project The Fifth Vital Sign, because the menstrual cycle is an essential health indicator, a vital sign, like blood pressure or heart rate.

Our mission has always been to use education as preventative care through body literacy and informed choices. Following the November election, we announced a call to action to invite people to resist and respond by sharing our curriculum in their respective locations. We trained more than 50 facilitators and had many conversations and exchanges; we learned a lot. Now, we would like to extend the invitation to converse in more depth with our newest offering: Conversations in Community.

This program is designed to support both informational learning and collective- and self-reflection around different aspects of reproductive health. It is a nine-month program, consisting of six months of bi-monthly, followed by three months of one-on-one mentorship. At the end of the program, each participant will have created a reproductive health curriculum based on their community’s needs. The goal is to present the curriculum in a way that feels most comfortable to them. This may be as a story, theater piece, Powerpoint, essay, podcast, meet up circle–anything you can imagine. Our role is to support you in realizing this goal and in building a logistical framework to bring it into the world.

Through online modules, we will learn  topics including anatomy, physiology, the menstrual cycle, fertility awareness, breast and chest health, contraception, informed choice, hormonal health, and radical consent, as well as ideas about how and why this information is important.

Reflection will play a large role in our learning process. If we don’t have the opportunity to engage with this information on a personal level--if we leave it abstract, just as words and pictures on a slide, without placing it in our own lives--then we are cutting out the heart of this work. We encourage heart-, head-, and hands-on learning, on a human-to-human level, to make social and political change. Integrative learning is vital. In addition to the online modules, we will facilitate reflection with physical, visual, and audio exercises and explore questions like, what is my relationship to my own body; how do I converse with my body; what was my sex education in school like, why was it presented to me that way, and what impact has it had on my life; if I could speak to my 12 year old self, what I tell them about their body?

We feel that continued community learning is key to combating national and worldwide issues that we face. Without telling and hearing our stories in an intimate setting, we risk labeling any experience that isn’t ours as “other;” and therefore move further and further away from humanizing issues and policies that do not cater to our personal needs.

So, why did we decide to do something like this? After our initial facilitator training, we reflected on how personal, even intimate, this information and work are to people. It reinforced our belief that you know your own body best, and you know your community--the body at large--best, too. It’s not possible to make a one-size-fits-all curriculum, just like it’s not possible to have a one-size-fits-all approach to reproductive health care and solutions. While we still would like to share our curriculum far and wide, we would also like to commune with people who are passionate about sharing this work and their own stories. We feel that learning together is key and that reproductive health information must be shared in a thousand different ways on a thousand different days until one day, someone will teach it in a way that is accessible to YOU.

We also feel the urgency to connect, to expand, and to struggle TOGETHER. Reproductive health is a realm that encompasses many different experiences, and by speaking about the provision of care at any of its stages, we will be speaking about and considering the intersections of race, income, gender, sexual orientation, etc. These conversations are not a one-time event, and, as such, we want to invite them in and to stay in them. This journey must be holistic and invite conversations about power structures, politics, social, and cultural constructs and encourage us to ask how the micro and the macro are linked, how they affect each other.

It is important to us to not feel confined to the ways in which we may currently be measuring success in “programs.” This is not an academic setting. For this reason we would like to be transparent about the fact that this learning space is fluid and it is designed to be able to match different learning styles. The “why” is so important that the “how” will go anywhere to get there.  

The way in which we envision and are learning to practice as an organization can be best described as ‘relationship-based.’ This means that no matter how the organization scales, no matter what happens, we will always return to the one-on-one and group relationships to inform this work. We are open to change and to will respond rather than react to systemic, social, political, and personal changes and transitions. If we are going to expand, we will do so together. We promise to strive for relationship-based rather than an exploitation-based business. Ask us about it!

You can sign up for the training here as well as scheduled information sessions. Please reach out to us with any questions – we would love to hear from you!



Consent is consent is consent. Period.

By Emily Varnam

Over the summer I wore the same red dress with yellow roses on it. It was the only thing that I felt comfortable in, and recently, since it’s been snowing, I’ve been packing away my summer clothes and came across it. I looked at it and recalled all the memories that were made in its cotton comfort. One memory stood out to me.

Weirdly, it was not running in the park, riding my bike around Brooklyn, or going to the beach. It was visiting my OB/GYN. You see, this dress was part of one of the most empowering experiences of my year. One hot day in June I went to my OB, battling through the crowds in Times Square, I arrived just on time. Once it was my turn to see the doctor, I was excited to ask my questions. I had removed my dress and was waiting to have a breast exam and pap. After three years of fertility awareness method charting, I had grown accustomed to looking for clues, and my charts were telling me that I had not been ovulating. I wanted to know more and was here to ask for more information. My doctor explained that I would not need to ovulate unless I was trying to conceive. Here is where we got into a disagreement, where I suddenly was able to get up-close-and-personal with the experience of a doctor offering opinions and not facts. There are important health benefits to ovulation and it is important to know why one may not be. My doctor began to raise his voice to me as I questioned him further. “You’re going to argue with a doctor?!” At this point I suddenly realized that I did not feel safe. So instead of letting someone who was shouting at me put their hand into my vagina to examine me, I calmly responded with: “You’re going to hand me my dress, and I am going to leave, because it is unacceptable for you to speak to me like that.”

Fast-forward six months and here I am at my local Planned Parenthood to get my STD screening done. I was seen by two midwives and was surprised at how gentle my pelvic exam was. I was asked for my consent to do it and was relaxed when it happened. The difference between this experience and the aforementioned one is disturbing. It took me having an experience of true consent to understand how noticeable and disturbing its absence is. What really brought this home to me was a Facebook conversation I was having while I was in this appointment. Noted below is a friend’s reaction to her obstetric treatment.

Emily. Apologies for the random PM, but I am just trying to process something that happened less than an hour ago. Something that felt really fucking horrible and like a violation, and I thought I'd like to check whether I'm overreacting with someone who is unlikely to judge me and an expert in the field.

I've just had my first cervical smear for years and I started to cry a little on the way home

Firstly, the nurse apparently didn't realise that's what I was there for. So I waited while she did some admin and complained to me about the new receptionist not informing her etc. No calming words/chit-chat/humour... I was already nervous as it's been a while and I can get a little awkward about my vag

So I got ready as told, and without warning or asking me to relax she jammed it in and I was squirming and said it was painful but she kept pushing I felt so fucking stupid but it really really felt horrendous

I know it's not a fun experience but I can't recall it ever hurting that much. Like, at least warn me? I rushed there after work and was probably already tense for more than this reason. Then she had a go at me for being too tense and that there was a lot of discharge, and I didn't make it easy for her to find my cervix. I stupidly said I forgot that being relaxed helps and tried to laugh it off. I even apologised. Yet she kept going on that I was too tense.

No reassurance at the end either, she just said how long it'll take to get results and went quiet while I got dressed. I hope this is just an overreaction and I'll forget it soon. Maybe it's just been too long. Am I being a little silly? I feel like I can trust your opinion.

Sorry about being so long-winded. Can't stop playing it in my head and just wish it didn't make me feel this shit.

So here’s the thing: It is never okay to touch someone without consent or in a situation where that person is made to feel intimated or unsafe, and I am tired of seeing it happen in a medical setting, whether that is as a patient or doula. There is a cultural norm of expecting and accepting lack of consent and its perpetuated by a culture of victim blaming. We do not protect people with the tools to combat it and need to call on providers to do no harm, to honor people’s boundaries. Coercive language is used in health care settings that create an environment in which it’s easy to forget that you are the authority on your body. It took me practicing as a doula to see that I would have to set my own boundaries with my health care provider. I could not just assume I was safe.

Cristen Pascucci writes, “It is so very hard sometimes to explain our maternity care system to expecting mothers. The challenges they face are so unbelievable, it sounds like a paranoid fantasy to tell the truth, which is: “It is not unlikely that you will be lied to or completely misinformed by the people you trust. It is not unlikely that the things you think are making you safer are actually making things worse for you. And, yes, I know you won’t believe me until you go through it and learn this all the hard way. I’m sorry for that.” This idea goes beyond maternity care.

In my profession as a doula, there are conflicting ideas about whether we are advocates are not. In some doula trainings the scope of practice would ask me to simply encourage my clients to frame their experiences in a positive way, rather than challenge them. The issue is in a situation where consent is violated or not explicitly gained, if I tell someone that what happened is okay or minimize what happened, then I’m going against their body, which recognizes trauma, creating more internal conflict for them and in some cases an inability to heal from something. If I witness abuse and do not speak up, I become complicit in it.

 We need to normalize the idea of people saying “No” and other people respecting it. No is a full sentence and idea; it doesn’t need to be justified, but in all cases needs to be respected.

-For more information on knowing your rights as a patient: http://birthmonopoly.com/

-You can bring this free pamphlet with you to your provider’s office to discuss what you are and are not okay with prior to any consult or procedure.

Recent cases of violation of consent in maternity care:

http://www.al.com/news/birmingham/index.ssf/2016/08/jury_awards_mountain_brook_cou.html and https://birthanarchy.com/an-interview-with-kimberly-turbin/



How does our society hate women? Let me count the ways:

A is for Access to Abortion or lack thereof and Ageism

B is for Birth trauma, Body shaming and the Beauty industry

C is for Cis white male privilege and also for cervical fluid, the fundamental piece of a conversation about fertility, left out because of the collective disgust for the powerful things a women’s body can do

D is for Domestic violence reminding us that statistically the most dangerous thing to happen to a woman was a man

E is for Emotional labor, the free work that women do on behalf of the world in order for it to heal and the lack of recognition we get for it, and for the male Ego, lest it not be bruised in our fight toward Equality

F is the Female genital mutilation a practice that is alive and well that seeks to remove an organ whose sole purpose is pleasure, an organ whose full anatomy was not recognized by the medical community until 1998

G is for Gaslighting, Ghosting, and the Glass ceiling we have to smash through

H is for Hate crimes and Human rights=women’s rights

I is for Income Inequality and Infertility over diagnosed, under discussed, stigmatized, and for Identify, as in you are allowed to identify however you want

J is for Justice, a system that fails to protect us and often works against us. Asking us to bury our aborted fetuses, asking us to value a man’s ability over a woman’s right to feel safe in her body, asking us to prove that we are worth considering as human beings.

K is for Knowledge, access to which is limited based on the genitals you were born with, the biggest weapon and the humblest cure

L is for Locker room talk and Language, like hysteria, hormonal, incompetent cervix, even vagina, the etymology of which is scabbard or sheath, considered only in relation to the penis and not on its own terms, and something to enter violently with a sword

M is for Misogyny, Misgendering, Mansplaining, and Menstruation. Matriarchy now!

N is for #Notallmen rather than #yesallwomen

O is for Oppression and Obstetrical violence

P is for “grab them by the Pussy” - united states President elect but it is also for (Pantsuit Nation)

Q is for Queer, a way of defining yourself, you are allowed, and it is for Questioning the status Quo—Question everything

R is for Rape culture, the unreported crimes, the unopened kits, the idea that a man’s swimming career is more important than enforcing the correct definition of consent

S is for Street harassment and Sexual assault, Sterilization without consent, and Slut Shaming

T is for Transphobic and Tampon Tax

U is for Uterus – which is not necessary in the definition of what a woman is, which has power, meaning, and the ability to create life

V is for Victim blaming, for VULVA the word for the thing that most of us are still calling VAGINA because we don't bother to call women’s parts their correct names

W is for Witch Hunts, White supremacy, and, as Ta-Nehisi Coates Writes, the belief in being White, which has meant the belief in one’s power to dominate, exclude, and dehumanize. “Black women, we can and will do better for you”-Jesse Williams.

X is for Xenophobia

Y is for You, as in You, as in Your part in all of this

Z is for Zero—the tolerance we have for all of the above

A Call To Action

“Our mission is to use education as preventative care, encouraging individuals to make informed choices about their health. We strive to spread unbiased, free, reproductive health information so that we all feel more secure, safe, and alive in our bodies.”


The Fifth Vital Sign has always been about being safe in our bodies. When we sat down last year to discuss our mission we agreed that above all else, if we could communicate nothing further that our message was: your body has worth and you matter regardless of the body you were born into.  Today we feel the need to address the feeling of bodies being under threat. The etymology of consent is “feeling together,” and that’s what we are here to do. We both received messages from friends and family asking us ‘are you safe?’ and we want to have that conversation with you. We are here to listen. We are here to validate your feelings of rage, frustration, sadness and fear. We are not here to disprove your experience in your body but we do want to move forward, together.

As birth workers we have become accustomed to conspiring, to gathering together as one under the radar to help keep ourselves and our communities safe. How can we extend that? How can we grow our community? We are ready to love the shit out of you. We are ready to stand by your side. We are ready to unite.

When we are faced with adversity we are given an opportunity to show up authentically as ourselves. In this case we feel that we are asked to stand up and be counted and to offer the skills that we have. What does your community need that we can offer? Can we come and offer information or support where you are? Let this be a time in which we come together and stay together. In which we water each other and love each other into blossoming.

Let us be clear: we want to show up for you. We are ready to fight for what is true which is that all bodies have the right to be safe and protected. Let’s start with education. We want to offer training people in communities to fill the roles and needs and services that may be under threat, and we want to do this for free.  We want to undermine the idea that there is a price to pay for freedom in our bodies, a price on bodily autonomy and access to information with which to make decisions. The ability to be safe in our bodies is a human right.  If you would like to participate in training to facilitate our workshop email us: thefifthvitalsign@gmail.com. We are looking for representatives in every place. It is our goal to collaborate with at least one Fifth Vital Sign representative in each state, so that on February 14th (Valentine’s Day) there are at least fifty classes going on across the country: Love Trumps Hate 2017 5VS edition.

In addition, it is critical to us to grow an organization that is as inclusive as possible. We are two able-bodied, cis-women with white skin. In order to best represent more diverse opinions, lived experiences, and perspectives, we plan to elect a board that will guide The Fifth Vital Sign’s curriculum and future always toward further inclusivity, decolonization, social justice, and body positivity. We are stronger together. If this interests you, please email us.

This is only the beginning of what will be many action steps down a road we want to walk with you all. Let’s do this. ‘They tried to bury us, they didn’t know we were seeds.’  #stayhuman #lovetrumpshate #strongertogether #loveisacollaborativeart

In Love and Solidarity,

Emily and Kelsey


Theresa Marie Amanda Buccellato 7/7/94 - 8/16/10

The Fifth Vital Sign blog is a place for people to share stories about reproductive health. It's our belief and experience that stories are medicinal. However, these posts do not always reflect the goals, intentions, or perspectives of The Fifth Vital Sign.

This is Theresa's story, told by her mother, Laura Femia Buccellato.    

WHAT EVERY MOTHER AND TEENAGE GIRL NEED TO KNOW ABOUT HORMONAL BIRTH CONTROL: the hidden dangers and facts that the Doctors and Pharmaceutical Companies chose not to disclose

My only child, Theresa, came to me a month before her sixteenth birthday and told me she had sexual intercourse for the first time.  I was not happy about it, but I was very happy we were close enough that she knew she could come to me about it.  I spoke my mind about how I felt she was too young, but I also knew deep down my words would not prevent her from having sex again.  Theresa asked about going on the pill.  I had been on the pill in my 20's and had no side effects from it.  I told her I would make an appointment with my OBGYN that also delivered her, and we would discuss the options with her first.  

Theresa had an exam by the doctor and then I joined them in the doctor’s office to discuss birth control.  Our doctor mentioned the pill first.  My first reaction was to ask about other contraceptives but the doctor felt the pill would be the best for Theresa.  She said she would put her on one of the lowest doses of pills called Othro-Cept.  I was aware of some of the side effects of the pill like gaining weight, blood clots, and danger if you smoke (Theresa did not smoke). Our doctor did not go over any of the side effects with us or what to look for if something were to go wrong.  I trusted my OBGYN because I have been with her for most of my life and she had four children so I never felt she would put Theresa in any kind of harm.  She also was aware of my family medical history and that my mother had a stroke at 32 years old.

Theresa was on the pill for a month and a half and never complained to me about it.  On August 15th, 2010, Theresa and I spent the whole day at the mall putting the final touches on her Mardi Gras Sweet 16 party.  She was having her party in October instead of her birthday month in July because she wanted all her friends back from summer vacation so they could attend.  Theresa always dreamed about her sweet 16 party, it was the day she felt she would be a Princess and her start of becoming an adult.  That night after shopping we stayed up all night ordering the masks for her Mardi Gras party. When I went to bed that night I had no clue our lives would end the very next day.  That instead of watching my daughter’s dream party happen, it would be a memorial concert on her party date instead.

August 16th, 2010 started out as a normal day.  I woke up and got ready for work.  Theresa was still asleep so I did not wake her to say goodbye.  Around 1:00 in the afternoon she called me at work to ask if she could go out with two of her friends.  I said yes and that her dad or I would pick her up at 9:00 PM.  I told her I love you and we hung up.  Those were the last words ever spoken with her.

Her dad decided he would pick her up that night.  I remember just getting out of the shower when my phone rang.  It was her dad telling me Theresa was sick and he called an ambulance.  I did not even wait for details, I got in my car and headed to the pizzeria he told me they were at.  I was there within 10 minutes and saw a huge crowed outside the pizzeria along with an ambulance.  I rushed into the pizzeria and saw Theresa on the stretcher out cold.  I remember looking around the pizzeria and it being packed with people.  As soon as we got into the ambulance I saw the paramedics rip open Theresa's shirt and start CPR.  I was in a daze and in shock, I had no clue what was happening, but I knew I was losing my child.  When we got to the hospital the doctor on call continued CPR and made me and my ex husband leave the room.  A couple of minutes later the nurse came out to tell me to come in and hold her hand.  I already knew Theresa was gone.  The doctor then had me go out of the room and then told us Theresa was gone.  He said her pupils were not dilated, and their is no indication it was caused by any kind of substance.  That I already knew, Theresa hated drugs and did not do them.  I remember walking back in the room to be by my daughter.  She was lying on the table with her eyes wide opened.  I will never forget that picture.  Theresa had the most beautiful green eyes and she was so proud of them.  I remember blurting out I wanted to donate them.  Everything after that is a total blur.

My 16 year old daughter was dead and I had no clue why.  She was a very healthy, athletic, young girl.  I always thought we were blessed because if I took her to the doctor more than once a year for feeling ill, that was a lot.

I called our OBGYN the next day to tell her Theresa died.  I still had no thought in my head that the pill had anything to do with her death.  I actually thought she had an aneurysm because her friends said she complained about a headache an hour before she died.  Two days after her death our OBGYN called me that the autopsy results were already in.  She said Theresa died from a blood clot that burst in her leg and caused a pulmonary embolism.  I was then told Theresa had a blood clot disorder called Factor V Leiden.  Dr. Melgar told me that everyone in my immediate family and my ex-husband’s immediate family had to be tested for it because this disorder is generic.  She told me a simple blood test would determine if anyone in the family carries this disorder. 

I immediately went and had blood work done and found out I have Factor V Leiden.  Theresa got it from me, and I never even knew this disorder existed.  My sister had her four children tested for it and two of her children turned out positive.  My nephew has it and one of my nieces has it from both her parents, which is very serious.  

I started doing research on this and that was when I found out the pill Theresa was put on was not the same kind of pills I was on in my 20's.  Hormonal contraceptives now have much more estrogen in them and are called Third Generation pill. I also learned if Theresa had a blood test the doctor would have known about her having a blood clot disorder and would have never been allowed on any kind of birth control.  After reading all this I drove straight to the doctor’s office to find out why the blood test was never mentioned.  Dr. Melgar explained to me that the blood clot disorder is rare and insurance companies will not pay for the blood work so doctors do not mention it to their patients. She did not even give us the option to pay for it out of pocket. The insurance companies feel it is not cost effective to run this test on people going on birth control.

A simple blood test (that I would have paid for) would have saved Theresa's life.  Instead, because she died from this, everyone in my family and my ex-husband‘s family had to be tested and insurance had to cover it. The insurance companies now had to pay for about 100 tests (we have a big family). 

Theresa's life to the medical industry did not matter.  She is now just a statistic to them.  For Theresa she lost her life, her future.  She was a promising young woman that wanted to either become a veterinarian or work as a social worker with Project Children.  She wanted to make a difference in this world. As for me and her father, we might be living, but we are both dead inside.  We lost the only important person in our life, our future.  We will not see our daughter graduate from college this year, get married, or ever have any grand children.  The medical industry stole everything from Theresa and us, just by not mentioning a simple blood test.

Since Theresa's death I have been trying to spread the word to others about this blood test.  I am not against birth control at all, but I am against the facts not being revealed.  I feel people need to know about this blood test.  In Theresa's memory I will tell people about this test over and over again.  Many people I have talked to have had this test done after hearing of Theresa's death.  So many people have turned out positive with Factor V Leiden.  I have come to find, this disorder is not as rare as the medical industry wants us to believe it is.  Actually talking to different doctors, I have found they are very ignorant to this disorder, and they have not been educated about it.  It is up to us to fight for this blood test and make it mandatory for all females to be tested for it.  Unfortunately a lot more people will probably die before it does become mandatory.

I am hoping by telling Theresa's story, this will bring awareness to others.  Please insist on the blood test if you or anyone you know is going on any kind of hormonal birth control.  You need to watch all signs in your body for complications.  Have you had many miscarriages? A swollen leg, that’s painful, red, and warm to the touch?  Trouble breathing? These are all signs that you might have this disorder (being a carrier is the same) or a danger sign about your birth control.  The number of people having strokes, PE, and dying have been increasing every year and it has all been caused from too much estrogen in birth control.  The medical industry no longer cares about saving lives.  They have teamed up with pharmaceutical companies to get as many profitable drugs on the market so they can benefit from it, instead of patience benefiting from it.  They need to be stopped and only we can do that with our voice being heard. I have written many, many times to Dr. Oz to do a show on this, but my emails have been ignored.  Finally I found Ricki Lake and The Fifth Vital Sign..............they care about woman and their choices.  They will hopefully make a huge difference with their voices being heard on behalf of all those that suffered complications and death from hormonal birth control.

In conclusion, if one person’s life is saved from sharing Theresa's story, then at least her death will not be in vain.  I miss my child every second of every day.  I lost my future, my best friend, my child and WHY? Because the medical industry felt she was not important.



Informed Choice

In our classes we always mention that we can’t and don’t tell people which form of contraception is best for them. Our opinions have no place there. What we do promote is informed decision making. We share reproductive health information that is as unbiased as possible and encourage people to ask specific questions of themselves and their providers. Knowledge, of oneself and one’s choices, is power.

Early on, we found someone who shared this mission, or, rather, she found us and became a strong supporter. Karen Langhart came to us out of the lovely blue and into our inboxes.


I’m at the Woman Up Summit – a think tank and project connected to the documentary [Sweetening the Pill]. It’s organized by Karen Langhart, who lost her daughter to a NuvaRing created blood clot. She has a foundation – Informed Choice for AmErika – and she and her foundation director are keen to talk to you about the birth control road trip and funding.

Shall I put you in touch?

--Holly Grigg-Spall”

I had read about Karen and her daughter in Vanity Fair a few years before. At the age of 24, on Thanksgiving Day, Erika Langhart died of a double pulmonary embolism as a direct result of the Nuvaring. A pulmonary embolism is usually a blood clot that’s formed in the leg, breaks off, and travels to the lung, blocking a major blood vessel there.

Erika Langhart

Erika Langhart

“In the ambulance Erika had two heart attacks, and she was semi-conscious by the time they reached Virginia Hospital Center. According to Karen, a doctor in the emergency room asked her over the phone: ‘Was your daughter using birth control?’ Karen said, ‘Yes, NuvaRing.’ He removed the device and said, ‘I thought so, because she’s having a pulmonary embolism.’”

Erika graduated from American University in Washington D.C., and it was important to Emily and I to have a class there, to share information about the risks of hormonal birth control, especially the increased risk of developing blood clots. 1 in 1,000 women per year who are taking combination birth control pills will develop a clot, and some studies have shown third generation, like the Nuvaring contains, and fourth generation progestins increase that risk even further.

Oorja Mehra, one of Emily’s dearest friends, helped us organize the AU class, which fell right in the middle of mid-term exams. Still, five students attended, impressively engaged, despite the late, studious nights. It was our first college class. This is an age group that is so critical to us to reach, and we were thrilled to be there. We feel so grateful to everyone who was able to attend. Plus, Oorja swiped us into the cafeteria afterward, making our post-grad dreams come true.

Emily and Oorja at Steak 'n Egg diner in DC

Emily and Oorja at Steak 'n Egg diner in DC

Tanisha Ferguson, the communications director for Informed Choice for AmErika and one of Erika’s best friends, returned to her alma mater to attend our class. She spoke about Erika and two other American University classmates who experienced pulmonary embolisms related to the Nuvaring. She used names, not numbers, to describe the risks of hormonal birth control. When pharmaceutical commercials list side effects in hyper-speed and lettering is miniscule, it’s easy to dismiss and downplay the risks. Tanisha’s presence was impactful for all of us, because these risks are real and life changing.

We had the opportunity to spend five nights at Tanisha’s. We basically moved in. She and her family were incredibly generous, sharing their space, food, time, washer and dryer. Over lunches and dinners, Emily and I listened to Tanisha describe Erika. How Erika didn’t want to miss out on a single thing, to the point she was nearly asleep at the end of Tanisha’s wedding night but, rather than give into tiredness, ran around the hotel several times to wake herself up, to be 100% present. She lived so much life in her twenty-four years. Tanisha found out she was pregnant right before Erika passed and imagines her son and Erika high-fiving each other as they crossed the earthly threshold, Erika passing her vivaciousness to Luke, Tanisha’s son. We feel like we know Erika, if only a little. Thank you, Tanisha and family, for having us; it was a gift to stay with you.

Karen’s favorite quote was: Love is stronger than fear, life stronger than death, hope stronger than despair. Since starting this project, we have heard and read more real stories about severe injuries and deaths caused by hormonal birth control related blood clots. We find hope through a task force of individuals and organizations that are questioning contraceptive choices and demanding informed consent. We find hope in education as prevention, and the task force is growing, one class and person at a time.

First class selfie-stick photo

First class selfie-stick photo

*In our classes, we always review the signs and symptoms of deep vein thrombosis (DVT) and pulmonary embolism (PE), because quick treatment can make a difference. We believe the more people who can recognize these signs and symptoms, the safer we will all be.*

What is DVT? It’s a blood clot that forms in the deep veins, usually in the legs, but sometimes in the arms.

Signs and symptoms of DVT

Contact your doctor immediately if you experience:

-Swelling, usually in one leg or arm

-Leg (or arm) pain or tenderness

-Reddish or bluish skin discoloration

-Leg (or arm) warm to the touch

What is a PE? Clots can break off from a DVT and travel to the lung, blocking a major blood vessel there.

Signs and Symptoms of Pulmonary Embolism

Call an ambulance or 911 for treatment in the ER if you experience these symptoms:

-Sudden shortness of breath

-Chest pain that’s sharp, stabbing, and may get worse with deep breaths

-Rapid heart rate

-Unexplained cough, sometimes with bloody mucous




Our First Class

A momentous event in 5VS’s history occurred! Our first class!

We couldn’t have asked for a better way to spend a chilly Valentine’s Day than in the cozy, little room at Carriage House Birth in Brooklyn, surrounded by the most supportive audience. A lot of our friends and many new faces showed up, including some participants’ kids*. One of the youngest class-goers even co-taught with us.

Co-Teacher Lex with the best seat in the house.

Co-Teacher Lex with the best seat in the house.

Since it was the first time we had co-taught a class, we were nervous and didn’t know how each section would unfold. After some initial technical difficulties (fixed by our wonderful friend, Jess, who saved the day!), we got into the swing of things and felt that we could have kept going for hours. The group’s engagement and illuminating questions were so motivating. Plus, fellow doula, Bree, baked and decorated vulva cupcakes. Valentine’s dreams accomplished.  

Sparkly vulvas!

Sparkly vulvas!

We’ve already heard back from a few attendees about how they are implementing the information we shared! Brooklyn is our return point and home, and we can’t wait to come back to Carriage House after the tour to share all the new things we have learned.

Here’s what a few class-goers said:

‘’The Fifth Vital Sign class was incredible... I learned things about the female reproductive system and my body that I wish I'd known SO much sooner! It makes me want to cry that more women don't understand their bodies and their cycles, but I am so hopeful and grateful for the work Emily and Kelsey are doing to share this information. Go spend time with these ladies - you will be so happy that you did!’’ - Elissa  Weinzimmer

"I never knew my own body until I attend The Fifth Vital Sign workshop. From checking my own cervix, to understanding why I haven't been getting pregnant for months. Now I can keep track of my ovulation and increase my chances of getting pregnant. Their information is so valuable and easy to understand about the female reproductive system. I encourage all girls and woman to attend their awesome workshop." - Wendy Cruz-Chan

*People of all ages are always welcome at our classes!


Welcome to The Fifth Vital Sign blog! For the next three months, we will be on the road, teaching health and wellness classes in sixty-five locations across the US. Our mission is to use education as preventative care, encouraging individuals to make informed choices about their health.  We strive to spread unbiased, free, reproductive health information so that we all feel more secure, safe, and alive in our bodies.

Here, we will relay what we witness on our journey through writing, video, photo, and audio media (also through memes—we love memes). We want to share people’s stories and tell our own. We want this space to be light and heavy, meaningful and informative, inspiring, silly, interactive, raw, positive, and human.

We hope this blog will connect us with you, because you all are The Fifth Vital Sign’s driving force. Please join us on our trip as we dream and drive.

We invite you all to contribute to the blog. If you have ideas for a guest post, a personal story, or an interview, please reach out to us at thefifthvitalsign@gmail.com. Let us conspire (breathe together) and bring about change.