Shortly after Jen Singer, 53, recovered from COVID-19, she placed an order for a medical ID bracelet. The virus had manifested as a third-degree heart block, requiring her to get a pacemaker. Singer’s bracelet, fittingly, has heart-shaped links; it reads, “Pacemaker on right. From COVID.”
“I put COVID because there’s new information all the time on how the virus affects the body, and there could be something a year from now that we don’t know about yet that could be relevant,” Singer says.
Medical ID jewelry has offered reassurance to patients of all ages and backgrounds for decades — it dates back to at least 1953. But the coronavirus has elucidated the psychological and practical value of wearing a bracelet or necklace engraved with emergency medical info, especially for people who have a higher risk of getting seriously sick from COVID because of an underlying health issue like diabetes, cardiovascular disease or asthma. In fact, the need for a sense of security during a time when people feel powerless has translated into an uptick in sales for some companies that manufacture ID jewelry (which is available at a wide range of price points).
Allison Roberts, founder of Return to Sender, which specializes in making fashionable medical ID bracelets, has seen a substantial increase in orders and website traffic since the pandemic started. “Two things have stood out,” she says. “Orders that consist of just a person’s name and an emergency contact phone number, with no preexisting medical conditions or drug allergies. The other is the volume of doctors that have been ordering bracelets for themselves.”
Helping first responders
There are no official guidelines for who should wear medical ID jewelry or what it should contain (other than the “snake and staff” caduceus symbol or the often blue Star of Life), but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Center for Preparedness and Response generally recommends its use, and EMTs are trained to look for them as part of protocol.
The first thing an EMT is required to do when someone is unresponsive is to check the “ABCs”: airway, breathing and circulation. “If those are intact, then we do a ‘sweep,’ where we check the person’s neck, wrists and ankles for medical ID jewelry,” says James Boomhower, who has been a paramedic and a first responder for 20 years and now works for an air medical transport company in Wrentham, Massachusetts. “I can’t tell you how helpful ID bracelets, of all brands and types, have been in identifying patients, and in some cases, notifying loved ones.”
Space is limited on jewelry, so it’s important to pare it down to conditions that can be life- threatening, such as allergies that can cause anaphylaxis, a seizure disorder, a heart condition or a bleeding disorder. Rules for listing Do Not Resuscitate or Do Not Intubate vary by state, but a DNR/DNI instruction is rarely valid unless it’s backed up by an official, physician-authorized document. Hence, when people include DNR and/or DNI on their jewelry, they often add a line such as “see DNR order in wallet” or their doctor’s phone number. Roberts says she’s seen more requests for DNR/DNI engravings since the pandemic started.
“As ER doctors, we are trained to make split-second decisions,” says Dr. Gregory Mount Varner, an ER physician and former city medical director of Washington, DC. “We have to quickly decide the best course of action given limited time, information and exposure to dire consequences. When a patient is unable to give us the information we need but they have medical jewelry, it helps us make those life-saving decisions. Granted,” he adds, “the [patient’s] current situation may or may not have anything to do with the condition listed on their jewelry, but it helps us gain a bit more insight that we may not have had had they not had the jewelry.”
There’s an app for that
Medical ID bracelets may seem quaint in the digital age. To address this, some companies have added features to jewelry that allow first responders to access more detailed information about the person with an app. Road ID makes sporty bracelets, anklets and wristband attachments for smartwatches geared towards runners, bikers, hikers and other solo adventurers. The underside of the metal ID plate contains a phone number, a URL and a PIN that provide access to an extensive online profile of the person’s medical history.
Other companies add a QR code to their jewelry, which can be read by the camera on a smartphone. And most smartphones now come with a medical ID app that can be accessed in an emergency without a password, thumbprint or face ID. The lockscreens of most iPhones, for example, have “Medical ID” in the bottom left hand corner. When tapped, it opens an app containing the owner’s medical and/or emergency contact information.
Michael Suhy, the fire chief of the Cuyahoga Heights Fire Department in Cleveland, lost his daughter a few years ago when she went into anaphylactic shock due to a peanut allergy. He and his wife started a foundation in her honor, and one of their goals is to educate first responders as well as the general public about how to input and retrieve information from phone and smartwatch apps. “We talked about making a bracelet, but then we realized that these kids nowadays, they’re going nowhere without their cell phones,” says Suhy. “The information can be as simple as ‘My albuterol is in my backpack.’”
One of the major concerns with the jewelry, says Boomhower, is that it’s hard for people to keep the information, such as a change in medications or emergency contacts, up to date. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been like, ‘Hi, Mr. Jones, I’m calling to let you know that Mrs. Jones is in the hospital,’ and he’s like, ‘We were divorced 20 years ago,’” he says. “The beauty of the virtual ones for those with the capabilities to use them is it’s much, much easier to change info, to take things out, to put things in. It’s always helpful to have that stuff as updated as possible — and whomever your emergency contact is needs to know they’re your emergency contact.”
Ideally, you’d use both the analog and the virtual options, but no matter which type of ID you choose, the COVID-19 pandemic “is a prime time for everyone to maximize their care and to actually help first-line people,” says Varner. “If you’re unconscious, help us. If you’ve got some major allergy or a major bleeding problem, help us with that.”
Finally, even though medical IDs are serious business, they don’t have to be humorless. Roberts once received an order from a person with a wasp sting allergy that had all the important info on the front, like where they could find the EpiPen and emergency contacts. On the other side: “Did you kill the fucker?”