Feb 25, 2015
Friday afternoon I got a text from a friend of mine pointing me towards a debate that had broken out on an EMS related Facebook page about the perception of tattoos and their impact on professionalism. A lot of this has been spurred along by the beautiful artwork that Holly Monteleone displays on her arm in A&E’s new show Nightwatch. Tattoos say nothing about a paramedic’s ability to care for a patient. Thinking otherwise is a debate that I will not even entertain. The perception that some int he general public might have when they see your tats though is another thing all together.
While I do not have any tattoos nor do I plan on even getting one, a number of my friends have them. The vast majority of them are pretty cool to look at. There is a story behind each and every one of them and to that specific person, their selected piece of body art means a lot to them and I respect that. On the flip side of that coin though, we are often asked to define what professionalism is, and really for the most part it varies greatly depending on the community one serves. What might be accepted by some might be shunned by others. This rings true for body art.
One of my favorite tattoos stories involves a good friend and coworker of mine who I was on a run with for an elderly female with COPD. Sitting by her door, and throughout her apartment she had a number of Buddha statues. We started our patient on her nebulizer treatment and my partner said “Nice statues! I have a Buddha tattoo on my belly!” My sly, slick COPD patient looked at him and said “I don’t believe you.” Not one for backing down from a challenge, my partner pulled his shirt up displaying his full belly tattoo with his belly button matching up with Buddha’s and said “Look!” The three of us shared a good laugh, and it was a constant topic of conversation for the remainder of the call.
I understand tattoos as a form of expression. As a former supervisor I can also see the other side of the argument. We have to be mindful of the way that we portray ourselves and those around us int he public eye. We are a vital cog in the public safety machine and if we are going to elevate ourselves to the level of respect that fire and police receive we need to change our approach.
What we should be doing is modeling our profession more along the lines of other medical professions whose career paths we would like to mimic like physician assistant or registered nurse. Professions like these strike more truly at the root of what we are: an academic profession that prides itself on their ability to care for patients and makes sure that each and every person that we encounter has faith that the care they will be receiving is the very best. Part of achieving that is maintaining a professional appearance which contributes heavily.
In two major teaching hospitals that I have delivered patients to in my fifteen years as a paramedic, both had rules that tattoos had to be covered. In fact, pretty much every hospital that I have dealt with has had a similar policy. It stinks, but it is a product of the society that we live in today.
I’ll leave you with this: have all the tats you want. In fact, show me each and every one of them because I want to see them. I want to know what they say about you and the experiences that you have had in your life. Keep in mind that there are going to be employers that you might want to work for who say to you that you need to cover your sleeve, or that you probably should have rethought that facial piercing.
They are well within their rights to ask you to cover up because unfortunately, having tattoos does not enter you into any protected class, and despite what a small sect of people would debate, having to cover one’s tattoos doe snot violate your first amendment rights. Because of this, you might end up at a crossroads in your career. You might have to choose between covering up and working for that dream employer, or moving on to another job with another employer who does not ask you to compromise your appearance as much. That right there is a personal choice. Just remember that judging somebody who asks you to cover your tattoos for the reason of employment is not different than somebody judging you for the presence of your tattoos. It is about each of our own personal beliefs.
Tattoos don’t make you a bad person or a bad provider. That does not mean that you are going to get to display them all the time every day. It also does not mean that your employer is required to view them as acceptable. There is a time and place for everything. Just because somebody does not share your beliefs does not mean that they think less of you. Just because they don’t want your tattoos displayed for the world to see while you wear their uniform does not mean that they don’t appreciate the meaning behind them.
Be just as understand with them as they are with you.