A Tattoo in Time
by Marian Haglund Juhl

Seventy-one may seem an odd age at which to get your first tattoo, especially for a woman. Just about the only reason I haven't gone ahead and had it done is I haven't quite figured out the wording. It will read something like this: Do Not Resuscitate. And I'll have it written right across my chest.

I've always enjoyed good health, despite a mastectomy 15 years ago. But I do have a genuine fear of becoming incapacitated by a serious accident or illness. For me, the fear has not so much to do with dying but with remaining alive and dependent on others for my care. I've always been fiercely independent—my hair has never been touched by a hairdresser, for instance. My family knows that when I die, I want to be cremated. No one could ever apply my makeup the way I do, and I'm not about to be dolled up by some undertaker. My husband attributes my idiosyncrasies to a stubborn Swedish heritage.

Maybe I am a bit peculiar. And I do admit to a touch of crotchetiness. But as far "Do Not Resuscitate" goes, I'm deadly serious.

The legal and medical communities have several systems in place that recognize my right to refuse extreme measures to keep me alive, should it come to that. Still, I remain skeptical. What if I am treated by a doctor who believes it is a physician's responsibility to apply all the heroic efforts available, despite the patient's wishes? What if my paperwork gets lost? What if my paperwork is exactly where it is supposed to be, but no one stumbles across it until after I've been resuscitated, and my oblivious body is kept alive by life support?

I don't want my children to have to make the decision to "pull the plug" on Mom. I've lived a wonderful life. I'd prefer, when the time comes, to have a wonderful death, as well.

So what to do? It occurred to me that a tattoo right across my chest would be impossible to lose or ignore. (As an artist, I truly believe a visual display is worth a thousand words.) The idea, which at first was simply a flippant remark I tossed out to amuse my painting group, has merit. Think about it: The first thing they do to you in most emergency situations is rip your shirt open to attach monitors and other gizmos of the trade. Who could miss my tattoo?

Determined I may be, but even I cringe at the thought of all those letters being pricked a dot at a time into my bony chest. Something shorter might work; the obvious abbreviation is DNR. But that could lead to other problems. Suppose something happens to me while we're visiting our daughter in Michigan, a state where DNR stands for the Department of Natural Resources. Might I be mistaken for property of the state, just another road kill that mistakenly ended up in a hospital's emergency room?

No, a shortened tattoo would leave too much to chance. As the notion continues to swirl in my mind, I envision a network much like Medic Alert. A tattoo, backed by the Do Not Resuscitate Society, should convince even the most reluctant rescue worker that I'm serious about this. Seeing my letters, emergency room personnel would know to contact the society at 1-800-HEYU-DNR. That call would confirm my membership and even elicit my degree of commitment:

Level 5: I really don't mean this, but I want to impress my friends with how urbane I am. Please do absolutely everything you can to revive me.

Level 4: If I probably won't die, but can be expected to live a compromised, dependent, yet relatively pain-free life, please do what you can to keep me around awhile longer.

Level 3: If it looks like I'm going to be dead by this time tomorrow, and that those next 24 hours will be extremely painful, go ahead and let me die peacefully right now.

Level 2: I mean it. If I'm going to be a vegetable, or what I define as a burden to my family, let's get this over with right now.

Level 1: Not only do I mean everything I said in Level 2, but while we're at it please help yourself to any of my usable organs so that others may enjoy a rich, full life.

"Yes, Ma'am, Mrs. Juhl is a DNR subscriber, Level 1. She asks that you please make every attempt to summon her family so they can say their goodbyes before you allow her to die with dignity."

Some people will no doubt be offended by this idea, and to them I say: Go soak your head. I don't care what you think. This is my life I'm talking about, and I'll decide how I want to live it.

It all boils down to mortality. If you have ever been diagnosed with a life-threatening disease, you know the issue of mortality looms large. If you're lucky, as I was, the outcome will be positive and you'll return to good health. But then, before you know it, you're 70. Suddenly, once again, you come face-to-face with mortality.

While I may feel decades younger, the fact is I'm in my "golden years." Although I certainly have no interest in seeing my life end any time soon, I need to be realistic. So this is far from a death wish. If anything, it's a life wish.

I've always been an idea person, and my family generally offers only a pat on the head ("good dog") when I try to work up some enthusiastic support for my latest brainstorm. I'm taken seriously much less often than I should be—and that's too bad, because I've had some darn good ideas. My friends, though, think I might be on to something with this one.

Yes, you say, but history is full of people who get tattoos and live to regret them. Wouldn't something like this be irrevocable? What if you change your mind? Easy enough. Society membership would include a coupon for a free, second tattoo. It would be the universal symbol for "Do Not"—a bright red circle with a slash mark across it. Have it applied right over the top of the old tattoo, and you're back among the living.

Living as well as I can is what I intend to do until it's time for me to go to my reward.

Copyright © 1997 by Marian Haglund Juhl


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