Jennifer C. Rydberg, Attorney at Law
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A tattoo is not sufficient for health care directives

Washington residents who have certain wishes when it comes to their health care should they become incapacitated should take the necessary steps to put them in writing in a legal way. Simply saying beforehand what the desires are is not sufficient. So too is it insufficient to take unusual steps, such as having the limits to medical care tattooed on one's body.

This problem was made apparent in a news story in which a Florida man who had the words "Do Not Resuscitate" tattooed on his chest. The medical staff could not adhere to the possible wish because it was not a legal document. The man, 70, went so far as to underline the word "not" and to place what appears to be a signature beneath it. That was not enough for doctors to keep from treating the man as he arrived in an unconscious state and near death. Doctors might look at the tattoo or some other marking indicating a person's wishes and briefly hesitate, but legal factors win out, especially in the case of life and death.

The medical professionals in this case first thought it was a relatively innocuous issue, but upon greater consideration, it became something they had to factor in. The issue with such a decision on the part of a patient is that there is no way of knowing exactly what it means, whether it is a joke, or if the person changed his or her mind after having the tattoo done. One doctor in Washington had a similar situation as she was working in California, as another patient had DNR tattooed on his chest, but said that he did want to be resuscitated if it came to that. That tattoo was a result of a lost bet. In the case of the Florida patient, the legitimate DNR form was found and the patient died as he wished after treatment efforts were stopped.

This issue might seem rare, but people will often believe that a backup plan or a replacement for a legal document stating their treatment limits will be enough. Health care directives should have a clear and detailed statement as to what can and cannot be done. Those who are confused about this issue should get assistance from a lawyer who understands how to craft documents listing their medical needs and ensure that it is legally binding.

Source: reuters.com, "Tattooed wish for withholding treatment not good enough, doctors say," Gene Emery, Dec. 4, 2017

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