RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) -
You've heard of medical alert bracelets and necklaces, but now some patients are opting for something permanent -- medical tattoos.
When there's a medical emergency, every second counts. Sometimes patients are unconscious and can't communicate what conditions they have. That's where tattoos come in.
"I got my tattoo about a year ago," explains Ryan Howerton. He was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes at age 11. He's needed medical attention before and recalls one time years ago at school. "Someone found me in the hallway because I couldn't make it down the stairs by myself."
Howerton has worn traditional medical alert bracelets but wanted something skin deep to represent his disease. "I'm not ashamed of it. I want to show everybody that it is what it is. It's a part of me and most likely will be a part of me until the day I'm cured."
Tattoo artist Rex Wiltshire does this type of ink from time to time. "I've got one guy that has his whole arm tattooed because he found out he's Type 2 Diabetic, and he's got all these insulin bottles."
Tattoo artist Lillian Artrip adds, "I had a gentleman that lose his medical alert bracelet all the time. I think he came in here after he was on number five, so he just decided to tattoo all the information on it." Artrip says it's popular among military members who get health information and blood types stamped on their bodies. She also recently tattooed a name and contact phone number on a man with early-stage Alzheimer's. "If in case an emergency arises and he forgets, there's his info right there."
There are risks, however. Dr. Veronica Sikka of VCU Medical Center says she has seen more and more over the years but, "if you do reverse your medical conditions and you're better but your tattoo is permanent when you come into the emergency department, we don't want to act on something that's not really there." With advances in medicine, what a patient has today could be gone tomorrow. "You can always change a bracelet, but you cannot really change a tattoo."
For physicians, it's about ethics too. They're trained to be life-savers, but "do not resuscitate" tattoos are becoming more common. Dr. Sikka treated a patient with one who changed his mind in the heat of the moment. "He said, 'no I actually want you to be aggressive. If my heart should stop, I want you to resuscitate me,'" Sikka explains. "It puts us in a sticky situation."
Dr. Sikka also warns these tattoos are not legally binding without advanced directives paperwork. She adds that first responders want to consider a patient's wishes, but there's no standard for where tattoos are placed or what they look like. They may not stand out like a bracelet or necklace.
It's something even artists who do them consider. Wiltshire says, "If they have a lot of tattoos and all these tattoos are on 'em, you're going to be looking for things and doctors or anybody else who sees them may overlook them."
Artrip recommends her clients talk with their doctors first. "If you want it to actually do what it's supposed to, medical alert, the individual should tell the person to put it here which is where emergency personnel look here," she says pointing to her wrist.
Some drugs prevent a tattoo from healing properly, and Diabetics could have blood sugar or other complications. For those who have a medical tattoo like Howerton, however, it's about being more than an alert. "It definitely shows an art of expression and of who you are."
8News checked around with various advocacy groups, and none we spoke with has a stance on medical tattoos. There has been some research on the effectiveness and the risks of medical tattoos, but it's still a somewhat new issue.