A man's tattoo left doctors debating whether to save his life

A man admitted to a Florida hospital had an unusual do not resuscitate order, a new study shows.

Story highlights

  • Study details hospital's dilemma caring for a patient with "Do Not Resuscitate" tattoo
  • Doctors initially chose to treat the patient with antibiotics and other life-saving measures

(CNN)Picture this: A man is admitted to the hospital, unconscious, with a history of serious health problems and a high blood alcohol level. He has no identification and no family with him. On his chest, he has a tattoo: "Do Not Resuscitate."

What would you do?
It sounds like a worst-case-scenario question from a medical ethics course, but it really happened recently at a Florida hospital. A newly published study in The New England Journal of Medicine explored the ethical and medical conundrums the staff faced when presented with a 70-year-old patient whose denial of potentially life-saving treatment was right there on his skin.

    At first, doctors wanted to ignore it

    According to the study, authored by a team of medical professionals from the University of Miami, the doctors attending to the man didn't want to honor the tattoo because there was no way to be absolutely sure that's what the man wanted.
    "We initially decided not to honor the tattoo, invoking the principle of not choosing an irreversible path when faced with uncertainty," the study said. The doctors chose to treat the patient with antibiotics and other life-saving measures.
    However, they called in the hospital's ethics consultant, who had a different opinion.