Mary Wohlford of Decorah wanted no confusion over her living-will instructions, so she had “Do Not Resuscitate” tattooed on her chest. Experts say the directive would not hold up in the emergency room or court.

Iowa’s resuscitation law spells out when caregivers are not permitted to resuscitate a patient:

BINDING: Doctors will not resuscitate if there is a living will or an advanced directive. To make sure your wishes are followed, you may want to consider:

• Authorizing someone who can make decisions for you using what’s called a medical power of attorney.

• Placing a copy of the living will or directive with your airplane tickets when traveling.

• Having your living will or medical power of attorney form reduced in size and laminated to carry in your wallet or purse.

NOT BINDING: A tattoo wouldn’t be good enough, according to Dr. Mark Purtle, who works at Iowa Methodist Medical Center.

May 16, 2006

Decorah, Ia. — Eighty-year-old Mary Wohlford has informed family members of her wishes should she ever become incapacitated. She also has signed a living will that hangs on the side of her refrigerator. But the retired nurse and great-grandmother now believes she has removed all potential for confusion.

She had the words “DO NOT RESUSCITATE” tattooed on her chest. “People might think I’m crazy, but that’s OK,” Wohlford said. “Sometimes the nuttiest ideas are the most advanced.” If all else fails, if family members can’t find her living will or can’t face the responsibility of ending life-sustaining measures, she said, then doctors will know her wishes by simply reading the tiny words that are tattooed over her sternum. “I probably should have had it dated, too,” she said.

As it was, the first time she entered Gary’s Professional Tattooing Studio, the employee balked, saying he wasn’t sure it would be ethical. “I said, ‘OK, but you get these druggies and drunks in here and you do it. Do I look lucid or not?’ ” she remembered. The employee still demurred. Shop owner Gary Lietz said he, too, was reluctant, but eventually gave in. Wohlford even talked him into a senior citizen discount.

Would Wohlford’s tattoo stop an Iowa doctor from resuscitating her? “According to Iowa law, the answer is no,” said Dr. Mark Purtle, who works in internal medicine at Iowa Methodist Medical Center. He said Iowa law spells out when caregivers are permitted not to resuscitate a patient, and a tattoo wouldn’t be good enough. He suggests a living will or an advanced directive, with a copy placed in the patient’s medical chart, as well as discussing your wishes with trusted family members.

Lawyers agreed with Purtle. “Just having that tattooed on your chest and doing nothing more, I’m not sure that’s going to do you much good,” said William Bump of Stuart, who has expertise in living wills and estate matters. Wohlford has no regrets about getting her tattoo “it felt kind of like a bee sting” and proposed an offer to Lietz, the shop owner. “I told Gary I’d bring a busload of old ladies over if he’d give me a 10 percent cut.”

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