Getting a Do Not Resuscitate tattoo on one’s chest is a threat I’ve heard made many times by fellow health care workers. It is a fed-up critique of our inexhaustible system of “do everything” medicine. The suffering we all witness can be grating to the bone. And many of us shudder to think that we too could be placed on the conveyor belt to nowhere, our loved ones helpless to stop it.

But I always thought it was a bluff. Until I met Mary.

At a recent conference on palliative care for medical professionals, I ate lunch at a table with several nurses. Like me, they were getting a lot from the conference, mostly in the realm of personal support. It’s tough being a “talk first, act later” health care practitioner, surrounded by “do something!” colleagues. One can tend to feel like a naysayer, even a wimp, when cautioning against treatments whose benefits may not outweigh the burdens they will place on a vulnerable patient.

As we commiserated, one of the nurses said casually, “I have it on my chest. They’re not touching me.” She was the quietest one. I’d almost say prim. She paused, holding her turkey sandwich neatly over her buffet platter and took a swig of Coke. I thought I’d heard wrong. “You want to get a Do Not Resuscitate tattoo on your chest?” I asked, as one might say to a friend whose goal was to lose 50 pounds. You’d support it, but you knew it would never happen. “No, I have one,” she said quietly, pulling her shirt aside modestly to show the skin over her heart muscle. I stared at it unbelieving. It was like a fantasy book animal never seen by human eyes. A unicorn. I honestly thought she would peel off the sticker and chuckle.

I stood up and walked around the table to her. I needed to see it up close. She too stood up and again revealed the tattoo. It was in a scripted font, lovely in its simplicity. Quiet, not too frilly, just matter of fact. “No Code” it said firmly. It was black, although she’d requested purple. The tattoo artist hadn’t charged her for his mistake.

I asked her what had motivated her. Was this a cute reference to her chosen profession? A dare from a colleague? A hasty decision which she regretted? Was it just another piece in a whole collection of body work?

No, she said. She didn’t like tattoos. She would not be happy if her daughter came home with one. She had considered this tattoo for years before she did it. She felt she had no choice. The thought of being trapped in an ICU on a breathing machine, unable to think or talk, her family helpless at the bedside, terrified her. (…) Read Full Article Here

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