Do Diabetes Tattoos Work as Good as Medical Alert ID Bracelets?

A pair of Michigan insulin pump reps aren’t ashamed to show the world they have type 1 diabetes, so much so that they have literally embedded ink on their arms to prove it. Diabetes tattoos are worn with pride by many of us in the D- Community, including longtime type 1s Kelly Mann and Mark Walsh in the Metro Detroit area. Both are proud of their ink and are spreading the word that a tattoo isn’t taboo for people living with diabetes.

Kelly and Mark, who both currently work for Tandem Diabetes Care, are actually part of a growing group in that part of Michigan that keeps in touch and has regular D-meetups, all because of their D-tattoo connections.

“This seems to be a growing trend,” says Mark, who was diagnosed 32 years ago when he was 6 years old and has had a diabetes tattoo for nearly two years now. “I think a lot of people have thought about getting one, but maybe just have resisted for some reason. Until they see more people with them, and know it’s OK.”

Of course the topic can be controversial, as even with today’s modern treatments there’s still a sense of “you can’t do that” when it comes to diabetes and tattoos. But that’s a myth, one that seems to be fading as more PWDs get their own ink and show it off to the world.

Now, the conversation more often centers around the question: Do paramedics and first responders actually look for medical alert tattoos? And tied in with that: Should there be regulation of these medical alert tattoos?

“People are more accepting of tattoos today, especially if it has a purpose,” Mark says.

“I do a lot of athletics — mountain biking, kayaks, running — and I didn’t like having to wear a medical alert ID all the time,” he said. “That’s why I got my tattoo. And from my talks with paramedics and first responders, they are more prone to see that than nothing at all. I don’t have anything else that’s visual on my arms, so it stands out.”

The design of Mark’s D-tattoo came from a photo he saw online and altered to fit his personal style — a medical alerft symbol surrounded by the words “Type 1 Diabetes.” Mark chose to get his ink on the right wrist, despite the fact that some say it’s best to be on the left wrist as that’s where EMTs (emergency medical responders) generally check first.

“The design is something you have to think through and make your own, so that it looks decorative and stylish but doesn’t detract from the purpose of being a medical alert,” Mark says.

Through his work selling pumps and being involved with the ADA-sponsored Camp Midicha in southeast Michigan, Mark says he knows about 15 to 20 PWDs in Michigan who also have D-tattoos. About five of those work in the industry selling diabetes drugs or devices, but the rest are just local folks who’ve become connected by their diabetes and the ink on their bodies serving as medical alerts.

One of those is a fellow T1 and Tandem rep, Kelly Mann. Actually, Kelly used to be a clinical CDE for an endocrinologist in Detroit who my own mom used to see — so I know Kelly well, even before she joined the insulin pump company in the summer of 2013.

“I wasn’t sure it was something I wanted to do, but I did know that I hated wearing a bracelet or necklace all the time,” she says.

Kelly ended up designing her own D-tattoo, including the universal Star of Life medical alert symbol in red, and the cross-referenced words “diabetes” and “T1” in blue, because that’s our community color, she says.

One issue both Mark and Kelly struggled with was whether to have their respective tattoos say “diabetes” or “diabetic” — the latter of which has become sort of dirty word, as many of you know.

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Mark says he never cared what he was called, while Kelly said she is bothered by the term “diabetic” personally. It comes down to personal feelings, of course. And if you work for a diabetes company, it may be important to think about what your choice of words says to your customers.

“Since getting (a diabetes tattoo), I’ve had more positive feedback than negative,” Kelly says. “I’ve assumed that adults will think ill of my tattoo, but it’s interesting that in pump trainings with youth, the parents want to see my tattoo no matter how young the kids are.” They’re curious and even anxious to show children that an adult would feel comfortable enough with this disease to mark it permanently on their skin, apparently.

This content is created for Diabetes Mine, a leading consumer health blog focused on the diabetes community that joined ishonest Media in 2015. The Diabetes Mine team is made up of informed patient advocates who are also trained journalists. We focus on providing content that informs and inspires people affected by diabetes.

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