There's a tattoo trend surfacing — one that could save lives.
Increasing numbers of people who have serious medical conditions, such as diabetes, are turning to tattooing to identify themselves on the chance a health emergency leaves them unable to communicate, says Saleh Aldasouqi, a diabetes expert from Cape Girardeau, Mo., who will present a report on the topic Friday in Houston at the annual meeting of the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists.
"Like it or not, a lot of people are resorting to this way of medical identification," Aldasouqi says. "It's not that we (doctors) are promoting it. It's more, 'What should we do about it?' It is happening."
Aldasouqi first met a patient with a medical tattoo last year when Illinois correctional officer Todd Walsh, who has had type 1 diabetes since childhood, came to him for care.
Walsh, 37, sports on his wrist a black and red "star of life," a six-pointed star with a spiraling serpent inside, often seen on ambulances. The word "Diabetic" is inscribed below it.
Walsh has had numerous episodes of potentially life-threatening low blood sugar, which can cause disorientation and even unconsciousness. He had worn medical alert bracelets over the years, but he says they often broke and the cost was adding up. "This is a more permanent solution," he says.
Aldasouqi says that soon after meeting Walsh, another patient with a diabetes tattoo visited him. More research showed the Internet is rife with discussion about them, including interest from parents of children with type 1 diabetes whose kids fight wearing medical alert jewlery or find it cumbersome.
Aldasouqi's investigation included a visit to a local tattoo parlor. He was impressed with its cleanliness, that it had health licensing requirements (not the case in all states) and that clients were required to sign a consent form. "It looked just like any outpatient surgery clinic," he says.
He hopes his report will urge physicians to develop guidelines for patients outlining who is and isn't qualified to get one (some diabetics have wound-healing problems), and how to find a licensed tattoo artist.
At Fatty's Custom Tattooz in Washington, D.C., owner Matthew "Fatty" Jessup says he has carved numerous health-related tattoos. "I've done a biohazard symbol for a few people with HIV," he says.
Some say they'd skip the body art, though. Sandra Miller's son Joseph, 13, has type 1 diabetes. "While I understand the reasons for doing this, it feels a little too much like 'branding' my child," Miller says.
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