Tattoos as Medical Warning

Some diabetics opt for tattoos instead of bracelets to warn emergency personnel.


Dec. 20, 2007— -- 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.

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.

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:

Yimmy Householder, manager of NeedleMasters Tattoo Studio in Toledo, Ohio, and a tattooed diabetic himself, takes similar precautions. As tattoos can take long periods of time to complete and sometimes cause high anxiety, it is important for diabetics to have a stable blood sugar and food in their systems before sitting down for body art.

Before tattooing a diabetic, he says, "[I] ask them, 'Have you eaten?' 'What is your blood sugar?'

"After so many years tattooing, you can tell just by looking at someone whether they're drunk, if they have a low blood sugar ... or even if they've eaten," he says.

In addition, many tattoo artists strongly advise diabetics to avoid getting body art below the knee cap. People with diabetes typically have poor circulation in their lower legs and don't heal as well after breaking the skin.

For those who want to get tattoos anyway, Householder warns, "If they don't follow our advice we don't tattoo them. ... It's not about money, it's about health."

Special Meaning

Not all medical tattoos are meant exclusively for medical response teams. Some, like the one Jeff Broberg has on his wrist, has more meaning.

"It is my own way to continually remind myself when I am faced with a decision about having to exercise, about which food to select or how much to eat," he says.

Jones has also found alternative uses for her tattoo.

"I am so surprised ... how little people know about diabetes," she says. "[People] always comment on what a fab idea it is, and it usually allows me to educate people a little bit on how diabetes actually affects your life."

Of course, not all tattoos are permanent or dangerous. Parents of diabetics have discovered temporary tattoos for their young children.

By offering this alternative, companies like Medaware have given many parents relief when sending their children to friends' houses or sleepaway camps. Medaware glow-in-the-dark tattoos come in various designs and last up to five days; those opposed to jewelry or body art can get a pack of 14 for $2.95. However, Soard is quick to point out that these tattoos will not be seen any more readily by paramedics than the permanent versions seen on adults.

But there is yet another consideration for diabetics who opt for the permanent ink route: What happens if diabetes is cured?

Jones says this problem isn't that daunting. "If we ever get cured, all I need to do is have 'cured' written underneath!" she says.

Graham agrees. "I just tell them I'll have a great souvenir and an interesting story to tell."

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events