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Tattoos Illustrate Art of Saving Lives

  • Faiza Elmasry

It takes less than an hour for Robin Rhoderick to get what she has long wanted - a tattoo.

“Oh, look," she says, admiring the colorful emblem emblazoned on her forearm. "It's beautiful.”

While many view tattoos as a creative way to express themselves, for Rhoderick it is a potential lifesaver. Her tattoo is a new permanent medical ID. It alerts medical personnel to her health condition, which is called congenital adrenal hyperplasia.

"They won't mistake that at the hospital," she says. “It really means your adrenalin glands don’t function. I take steroids daily and if I have an adrenal crisis, then it becomes very life threatening.”

That's why she's always worn a medical alert bracelet. But not anymore. Now she's replaced that piece of jewelry with a tattoo.

Before the session, she told tattoo artist Jeffery Grimet she wanted to add wings to the standard medical alert icon, which includes a red star and a snake wrapped around a staff, a medical symbol.

Robin Rhoderick discusses getting a medical tattoo with Jeffery Grimet, owner of Inner Soul Ink, a tattoo salon in Mount Airy, Maryland. (VOA/A. Greenbaum)

Robin Rhoderick discusses getting a medical tattoo with Jeffery Grimet, owner of Inner Soul Ink, a tattoo salon in Mount Airy, Maryland. (VOA/A. Greenbaum)

Grimet, who owns of Inner Sol Ink tattoo salon in Mount Airy, Maryland, says the pre-session discussion with the customers is the most important part of the process.

”I can physically see what they actually have in their head that way I can actually take that and actually apply it to the design,” he says.

He also leaves it to his customer to decide where to place the tattoo, but he says it should be in an accessible place on the body, so medical professionals can see it in case of an emergency.

“Probably somewhere around the wrist or the wrist area," Grimet says, "so when they go to take their pulse, they see it immediately.”

That’s exactly where Ryan Merchant decided to put his fifth tattoo more than a year ago.

“I've always loved tattoos," he says. "It starts conversations. People seeing them, you explain them. Then, tattoos are art.”

Merchant was diagnosed with diabetes when he was 13 years old. As an electrician, he finds a tattoo more practical and safer than the metal alert bracelet he used to wear.
Electrician Ryan Merchant, a diabetic, finds a medical tattoo to be more practical and safer than the metal alert bracelet he used to wear. (VOA/A. Greenbaum)

Electrician Ryan Merchant, a diabetic, finds a medical tattoo to be more practical and safer than the metal alert bracelet he used to wear. (VOA/A. Greenbaum)


“You don’t want to wear metal when you’re working with electricity, so I had always to take it off before my shifts,” he says.

Tattooing is minor surgery, so patients should discuss it first with their doctors, says endocrinologist Dr. Saleh Aldasouqi of Michigan State University.

“If not done right, if not done by licensed parlors, by clean and sterile tools, then patients can have infections,” says Aldasouqi, who believes the medical community should create guidelines to standardize the process.

Aldasouqi says diabetics should control their blood sugar before and during the procedure. He also says the medical community should come up with guidelines that standardize the process, including the location of the tattoo.

“When it comes to patients with diabetes, there are certain areas in the body that should be avoided," he explains, "namely the feet because patients may have circulation problems and neurological problems where they may not feel the pain, when some of the consequences take place.”

More of his patients are getting medical tattoos and are happy with them.

“We can certainly call it a growing trend amongst patients in particular with diabetes,” says Aldasouqi.

Grimet, the tattoo artist, says between 60 and 80 people have come in to his salon for medical tattoos.

It's a new trend he expects to grow; one that's good for business as well as the health of his newest customers.

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