Identify Yourself

Why Medical ID Can Be a Lifesaver

| Jan 1, 2002

If you are careful—and lucky—it's possible that you will never end up in the emergency room. Many people with a chronic medical condition such as diabetes prefer to hope for this best-case scenario rather than wear visible medical ID.

Naturally, people with diabetes want to avoid labels that imply something might be wrong or different about them. Because of this, many in the diabetes community are hesitant to wear medical ID. While this aversion to being labeled is understandable, ID can provide medical workers with valuable, potentially life-saving information in an emergency.

Some people carry an inconspicuous wallet card listing their medical conditions. This practice, however, begs the following question: Are emergency workers going to treat your wounds first, especially if you are badly hurt, or are they going to rummage through your purse or wallet?

"If you think you're going to identify a medical condition by stashing a card in your wallet, you're wrong," said David Roth, past director of communications for MedicAlert, makers of medical ID bracelets and necklaces. "People don't always walk out with their purses or wallets. A purse is not a body part. It may take a day or two to show up at the emergency room or your house."

What Really Happens in an Emergency?

There is some doubt in the diabetes community as to whether emergency workers pay attention even to bracelet and necklace ID.

"They do and they don't," said Tom Godbier, a San Leandro, California, firefighter. "Bracelets are lifesavers."

Godbier claims that up to 90 percent of his emergency calls are diabetes-related. Unfortunately, few of these individuals, if any, wear medical ID. He once found a man passed out in the back of a pickup truck, not wearing ID. Was it a case of drug overdose, or was the man drunk? Luckily, a neighbor came over and explained that the man had diabetes. He was treated and released on the spot. Other firefighters and police personnel confirm that, without ID, the first suspicion in such a situation is intoxication.

If a person is unconscious, paramedics are trained to perform a "primary," said Bonnie Terra, secretary of the Santa Clara County Fire Department Operations Division. A primary consists of a head-to-toe sweep, a check for blocked airways, and a check of pulse and also includes a hand-check of the wrists and neck. Some emergency medical personnel say they "usually" look only at the wrists. Others say they cover all the bases.

Steve Mozingo, of the Milpitas, California, Fire Department, says he checks wallets last.

800 Number Is Important

Mary Teague, RN, CDE, medical resource specialist at MedicAlert, says the 800 number on medical IDs is one of the most valuable aspects of wearing ID. When the 800 number is called, MedicAlert can relay a patient's full emergency medical record directly to paramedics in an ambulance or to doctors and nurses in the emergency room.

Regardless of whether the 800 number on an ID ever gets called, the ID's immediate function is probably the most important because the information listed on a tag gives medical personnel enough understanding to provide immediate care.

From Roth's experience with focus groups, he claims that most people don't address the issue of wearing ID until they are in an emergency situation. "Once people get into a serious scrape, when their life may be threatened," he said, "that's when they do something."

What Kind of Medical ID?

The American Diabetes Association and American Medical Association guidelines say medical ID has to be a piece of body-worn ID, something that is readily visible. Many other forms of ID are advertised: watch tags, lockets, iron-on labels, tags for shoelaces. But it's important to keep emergency personnel's basic training and standard operating procedures in mind when deciding on an ID.

Tattoos Just for U

Some people with diabetes who wear medical ID have been more creative than others. Ruth O'Hara of New Hampshire once told Diabetes Health that her attempts to get her 12-year-old son to wear any type of medical-alert bracelet or necklace met with extremely limited success.

"He asked if he could 'Just get a tattoo on my arm—that way I won't lose it,'" said O'Hara.

Thinking this might be a good solution, O'Hara spoke with nurses at her local ER, and they agreed. However, she was unable to obtain a tattoo in New Hampshire or any of the neighboring states because the law states that one must be older than 18, even with parental consent, to be tattooed.

In addressing these concerns, DiBon Systems of Sarasota, Florida, created Just 4 U tattoos, which were developed by two diabetes nurse educators. Just 4 U tattoos are temporary, washable tattoos that are colorful and that come with an assortment of fun backgrounds for the medical-alert emblem. The word "Diabetes" is also a part of the tattoo design.
After placement, the tattoos will remain for up to five to seven days, even after bathing. However, rubbing with baby oil or rubbing alcohol for 10 seconds will quickly and easily remove the tattoos.

For some adults who want tattoo IDs, the "real thing" has been the solution. In December 1999, Chris Newman, a insulin-pump salesperson for Disetronic, told Diabetes Health he has his medical ID—the Staff of Aesculapius—tattooed on his chest. The word "Diabetes" is inscribed underneath it, permanently. An avid mountain biker, Chris said he decided to get the tattoo because he refuses to wear any medical jewelry. Also, he said that whenever he came home late, his wife would worry. What if he had a hypo? Would anybody know what to do? That was when he decided to get an ID tattoo. After speaking with emergency workers, he chose a location that would not be missed—over his chest.

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Categories: Diabetes, Diabetes, Insulin, Medical ID Jewelry


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