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. We've featured some ink-sporting D-peeps before, from a teenager in Michigan to our own Ask D'Mine columnist Wil Dubois who has a medical alert tattoo on his own forearm.
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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?
In July, a story in USA Today tackled this issue and pointed out how first responders don't always pay attention to these tattoos because they aren't regulated -- so they're not always in the same area or contain the same images or information. The president of the National Association of Emergency Medical Technicians was quoted saying medical alert tattoos can be complicated and hard to read, and aren't always as visible or noticeable as medical alert bracelets and necklaces.
Mark Walsh in Michigan says he thinks back to the many negative things his dad used to say about tattoos, as he was in law enforcement and was very against them. But after Mark got his own diabetes tattoo in December 2012, he was surprised to hear his father say: "That could save your life someday."
"People are more accepting of tattoos today, especially if it has a purpose," Mark says.
Professionally, Mark works with Tandem selling their new t:slim pump since it was introduced to market in August 2012, and before that he worked with J&J Animas selling their pumps. But it wasn't his professional work or even his involvement with diabetes camp medical staff that ignited his interest; it was his own desire to be able to participate in sports safely.
"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.
Diagnosed at age 6, Kelly got her D-tattoo in February to mark her 40th year with type 1.
Before taking that big step, she went out for an evening with a group of fellow type 1s who were also getting tattoos, including Mark -- who had his already. They discussed the difficulty of wearing a medical alert and their shared desire to have something more permanent and non-invasive to alert authorities to their medical condition.
"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. (See also: Blue Fridays.)
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.
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.
In any case, they seem to be getting more popular. Last year Healthline compiled a slideshow of 17 inspiring diabetes tattoos. What do you all think? Got diabetes ink? Met any new D-friends who do?