Tattoos as Medical Warning

Tattoos have been around for millenniums. For young people, this ancient tradition is often associated with the body art of entertainment icons like Tommy Lee, Dennis Rodman and Angelina Jolie.

But as more and more young people are diagnosed with diabetes, the tattoo fad that often spoke rebellion has found a new meaning.

By inking the universal medical symbol on their bodies, diabetics like Samantha Graham Vancouver, British Columbia, have turned to body art as an alternative to the Medic Alert jewelry often used to inform medical personnel that they are dealing with a diabetic.

"I thought it was the perfect idea because a tattoo ... would be much harder to miss than a simple alert bracelet if I was ever in the situation of not being able to communicate," Graham says.

No Substitute for Medic Alert, EMTs Say

But not everyone believes tattoos are the healthiest way for diabetics to bring attention to their condition. Todd Soard, president of the Florida Association of Professional EMTs and Paramedics, says a tattoo will not be the first thing a paramedic looks for when transporting a patient.

"It is no doubt going to be missed," he says. "Most EMS personnel are not trained to look for a tattoo because a tattoo is a tattoo!"

Dr. Michael Zbiegien, medical director of emergency services for the Children's Hospital at Sunrise Medical Center in Las Vegas, agrees. "There's not a lot of body searching on the street; [EMTs] don't have time."

But he says that because patients' immediate needs are met by EMTs, doctors may have more time to seek out tattoos once they reach the emergency room.

"Most physicians would honor a medical tattoo provided that [it] wouldn't cause additional risk," Zbiegien says. But, he advises, "You want to put it in a place where we're going to see it quickly."

Of course, tattoos are not the only option. Instead of a tattoo, Soard recommends that people opt for a tried-and-true solution: wearing Medic Alert jewelry. Medic Alert bracelets are emblazoned with the medical caduceus emblem and quickly notify emergency responders of a patient's condition. Information engraved on the back of the bracelet allows crews to assess vital information without the patient's response.

Soard says first-response teams, as well as doctors, are trained to search for these items and are "not going to be looking all over [patient's] bodies for a tattoo. ... We don't have time for that."

And there could be another reason why a tattoo isn't the best choice of warning. "Diabetics are known not to be the best healers and [a tattoo] is a trauma to the body," Soard explains.

The Trend Factor

Despite the safety benefits, wearable warning bracelets and chains are commonly eschewed by the younger set because of how they look.

"I bought a Medic Alert necklace and ... didn't wear it when I went out with friends, as I didn't believe it looked very classy," admits newly diagnosed diabetic Hayley Jones of the West Midlands, U.K.

Instead, Jones designed her own medical tattoo with "a feminine twist" and had it inked onto her wrist this year.

Some medical jewelry companies are becoming more aware of customer opinions and now offer trendy alternatives for stylish consumers. Still, some diabetics will no doubt still choose a tattoo.

For diabetics looking to get inked for any reason, Zbiegien offers the following suggestions:

make sure blood sugars are in good control before getting a tattoo;

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