Regret for the things we did can be tempered by time; it is regret for the things we did not do that is inconsolable.
-Sydney J. Harris
The images were dramatic. I spent a moment studying the skull, the loops of barbed wire, and the tapestry of violent illustrations that were visible on the young man’s chest and shoulders. This must have sent a message to anyone who saw them. More pictures disappeared underneath the hospital gown that had been draped over him.
Over the years, my patients' tattoos have definitely become more elaborate. When I was in training, older men often carried blurred, fading World War II-era souvenir images of sailing vessels, pin-up girls and birds. Somewhat younger men had blue daggers and women’s names etched on their arms.
As the culture changed, more and more patients displayed an ever expanding range of detailed and colorful images, phrases and symbols. I have also spotted spelling errors and some images that have probably served as permanent reminders of world-class lapses in judgment.
I rarely ask my patients about their body art. In my experience, tattoos are rarely conversation-starters like, say, a logo jacket or a carried book. If your favorite team proves to be a disappointment, you can change sweatshirts. Not so with body art. A sexy woman in a 1940s swimsuit looks somewhat incongruous on the bicep of an 85-year-old man. Since I can never know if the person regrets or celebrates the decision to get the tattoo, I usually leave the discussion alone.
Nevertheless, the artwork often makes me stop and wonder. What was she thinking? What does that particular image mean to him? Does that picture say something special about this person? Is there one image or statement that I would ever want to define me for the rest of my life? Wow! Didn’t that hurt?
The tattooed young man in his early 20s was brought to the operating room and we gingerly transferred him onto the table. His gown was unsnapped and folded down before we cautiously removed the hard plastic collar encircling his neck. The nursing staff carefully washed the skin of his neck and upper chest with sterilizing solution. There were several abrasions from the motorcycle accident that had recently broken his neck.
We started placing the sterile drapes before performing his tracheotomy. As we did so, I noticed that many of the images were only barely outlined and most of the colors were only partially filled-in. Much of the artwork had been left unfinished, apparently with plans to return to the artist another day.
I pulled the last of the surgical drapes into position. I wondered if he would ever see the images completed. His was a work in progress.Share on Facebook