LifeAfterDx--Diabetes Uncensored

A internet journal from one of the first T1 Diabetics to use continuous glucose monitoring. Copyright 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016

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Location: New Mexico, United States

Hi! I’m William “Lee” Dubois (called either Wil or Lee, depending what part of the internet you’re on). I’m a diabetes columnist and the author of four books about diabetes that have collectively won 16 national and international book awards. (Hey, if you can’t brag about yourself on your own blog, where can you??) I have the great good fortune to pen the edgy Dear Abby-style advice column every Saturday at Diabetes Mine; write the Diabetes Simplified column for dLife; and am one of the ShareCare diabetes experts. My work also appears in Diabetic Living and Diabetes Self-Management magazines. In addition to writing, I’ve spent the last half-dozen years running the diabetes education program for a rural non-profit clinic in the mountains of New Mexico. Don’t worry, I’ll get some rest after the cure. LifeAfterDx is my personal home base, where I get to say what and how I feel about diabetes and… you know… life, free from the red pens of editors (all of whom I adore, of course!).

Friday, August 15, 2008

On the radical fringe (again)

“My plumber said I should ask to see your tattoo,” said my elderly patient. (Man, does news ever travel fast in small towns!) I set my aluminum clip board down on her kitchen table and extended my right arm to her, wrist up.

She studied my new tattoo for a while with keen eyes, then gently ran a wrinkled finger over the design “did it hurt getting it?”

Nope, not worth mentioning. A finger stick hurts more.

“Do you think I should get one?”



Richard and I were sitting in a tattoo parlor called Shades of Grey in central Albuquerque. In some ways it was pretty much what I expected. In other ways, it wasn’t. The shop was located in a very ordinary strip mall in a very ordinary part of the city.

I guess I had expected it to be in a rougher neighborhood. Like sandwiched between a biker bar and a crack house, across the street from a XXX video shop; instead of between The Vacuum Doctor and Albuquerque Bridal Formals and More.

Inside the door, it was more what you might expect. A pool table dominated the lobby and the walls were covered with drawings of busty naked tattooed women. With vampire teeth and high heels.

The owner, Orlando, looked like what I envision Odysseus must have looked like. Slightly small of stature but sturdily built. A thin Greek beard. Penetrating brown eyes. Square, solid jaw and a thick chest. Of course, I doubt Odysseus was covered in tattoos. Inked flames licked up Orlando’s arms from his wrists. His biceps were covered with assorted designs. Large block letters dominated each finger, violating my Mother’s advice to me thirty-years ago: if you are going to get a tattoo, put it where you can cover it up if you ever need to get a bank loan. Sorry, no bank loan for you, Orlando.

“So you’re my Uncle’s Doctor?” he asked.

Slight flush of embarrassment. I’m not really a doctor, my patients just call me ‘Dr. Lee’ out of respect. But I help your Uncle keep his diabetes in check.

He nodded OK and asked, “So, are you ready to get started?”


For the life of me, I can’t recall where I first heard the idea of medical alert tattoos; but my crew and I had been talking about them for months before someone emailed me an ABC News article on the trend. Apparently amongst young D-Folk, medical alert tattoos are the rage. We even kicked it around several times at team meetings in the spirit of, yeah, someday I’d like to get a medical alert tattoo. Sort of like saying, yeah, someday I’d like to go bungee jumping. Surrrrrrrrrrre you will.

Anyway, I always wear an alert bracelet. Except when I forget to put it on, which is about half the time. But I always wear my necklace. Except when it bothers my skin. Or breaks.

Which is about half the time.

So I don’t recall how it came up that I mentioned medical alert tattoos to my mother, but I did, and she jumped all over it. My mother who is NO FAN of tattoos offered to pay for one. She enlisted my wife to the campaign. Both my mother and my wife insisted that they would feel better if their hypo-unaware T-1 loved one, who was out in the world half the time with no alert jewelry, had a medical alert tattoo.

But what design? And where to put it? And how on earth does one go about finding a tattoo artist that is skilled and clean?

As it turns out the middle question was the hard one. There was really only one design to consider: the caduceus, the winged staff entwined with two double helix snakes that has become the universal symbol of all things medical in our modern world. Finding the artist was fate and fortune. One of my patients came in one day with an eyebrow ring. Hey, I see you’ve got a new look. “Yeah, my nephew owns a tattoo parlor in Albuquerque and he was like, ‘uncle, let me give you a new tattoo’ but I have enough tattoos (editor’s note: very true) so I got this piecing instead.”

Hmmmmmmm......... I might have need of a tattoo artist. So my patient gave me Orlando’s card and I went online and the guy’s work is awesome. So that took care of that. As to avoiding Hep-C, his shop has a hospital autoclave for sterilizing all the gear and a brand new needle is opened in front of you and is used only on you.

So I walked across the field to the ambulance base and visited with two of our Paramedics about where a medic alert tattoo should be. Their first choice was on the neck on the carotid artery. No. Violates Mom’s rule of tattoos.

Next choice was at the wrist, but which one? What followed was a long discussion of which arm would be more likely to be ripped from my body in a wreck. This is why I generally avoid spending too much time with Paramedics.

In the end the right wrist became the favorite choice for several reasons: I wear a watch on the left and on the top of the left arm is a tattoo from my youth. D-folk generally wear alert bracelets on the right. In the end the consensus was it really didn’t matter (so long as my right arm wasn’t ripped off) because ambulance folks would “tune into” the caduceus.

So, everything in place, I got out the business card and called the tattoo parlor. I chatted with the receptionist. I said something like, Orlando’s uncle said I should call…and 20 seconds later the guy was on the phone with me. I outlined the project. He told me he was generally booked solid for three weeks out. I looked at my calendar and in three weeks I had to be in the city for a D-training all morning. We made an appointment for early afternoon.

I emailed Orlando about 20 low res thumbnails of various caduceuses (caduceusi?) for him to get a feel for the image. I know better than to try to give an artist too much direction. I just told him I wanted it to have an edge of attitude, it had to be recognizable as a caduceus and, of course, it had to say ‘diabetic’ on it somewhere. I closed my email with: the tattoo’s main job is to alert Paramedics that I’m diabetic. As it get to wear it the rest of my life, I want it to look cool. That said, not too wild as I work with patients of all ages and races.

Then I waited. And waited. And waited. And waited. And waited. And all of you know how much I hate waiting.

Two days before our appointment, just before bed, this arrived:

My first reaction was one of shock. My artist had taken one of the oldest and most used symbols on the planet and had done something unique with it.

Rio was at my shoulder when I opened it. “It’s perfect, Daddy!”

I called Deb. She leaned over my shoulder and stared at it for a loooooooooong time and said, “it’s magnificent.”

I stayed up waaaaaaaay past my bedtime, holding my wrist up to the monitor and trying to envision the design on me.

I analyzed what Orlando had done. The caduceus always has the top of its wings parallel to the horizon. He swept them upwards, and separated them a bit from the staff. A bit like angel wings, a bit like Harley Davison. A bit like arms raised in prayer. The snakes pull back from the staff more than usual. They are wicked looking, don’t tread on me ‘kinda snakes. With fangs like the needles we poke ourselves with. The orb on top of the staff floats free. Hope for the future? A symbol of the concentration and dedication it takes to stay healthy? You choose. Maybe both. The ribbon behind the staff and wings gives the entire emblem a bit of a military feel to the logo. Diabetes storm troopers. We must fight. Every day.

All said, it was everything I could want. For a guy who doesn’t have diabetes he really packed the image full of elements that go to the core of our disease. Two days later it was done.

My co-workers love it. My wife loves it. My mom loves it. I love it too. And I feel safer with it.

So, anyone else out there have a D-Tat? Email me an image and I’ll post ‘em. If not, and you want one, my design is Open Source. Help yourself. Just send my guy five bucks for coming up with the design.

And what if they cure diabetes, you ask? Yeah, right. Well if in two years or twenty they find a cure and actually make it available then I’ll go visit Odysseus again and have him add the word “Cured” above diabetic on my arm.


Blogger George said...

Oh WOW! That is great. I do not have a D-TAT I guess becuase I never thought of a good one.

You have inspired me. I will have to come up with something,

8:56 AM  
Blogger Bernard said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

10:47 AM  
Blogger Bernard said...


I read the post and kept thinking, when is he going to show the picture. Wow, what a nice tattoo. Can you show us how big it is in proportion to your whole arm?

I'm tempted...but I know what my lovely wife would say.

10:49 AM  
Blogger Scott K. Johnson said...

That is AWESOME man!!! I love it!

12:52 PM  
Blogger Mary C. said...

That's fantastic Wil! I've threatened my daughter Amelia (11)with a tattoo if she doesn't stop losing/breaking her medic alert bracelets. I just showed her yours and she said she must have the only mom in the world that wants her kid to get a tattoo. I said, nope, your mom made you get one for the same reason! Tell your mom I said "way to go!"

6:51 PM  
Anonymous Kelly said...

We have been threatening our son with that because he keeps losing or forgetting his ID. He has already broken the ice by getting 2 tattoos. I will show it to him. Is it on the on the palm side or the other /outer side of the arm?

7:12 PM  
Blogger Wil said...

Everybody--Tat is inside/bottom of forearm, the tips of the snakes tails about an inch from the wrist--location is optimized for being spotted as your pulse is taken or an IV placed. It is about three inches tall.


10:39 PM  

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