What’s in Your Wallet?

Prepare for the unexpected.

Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Cancer Navigator Kathy Gurland addresses psychosocial issues affecting patients and families.

Most anyone who watches TV has seen the commercial with barbarian Vikings asking the question “What’s in your wallet?” The campaign’s goal is to convince viewers to carry the company’s credit card with them at all times. This commercial is also reminiscent of an earlier credit card campaign that reminded viewers, “Don’t leave home without it.”

As a cancer navigator and former emergency room and hospice social worker, I have used these slogans countless times, both professionally and personally. But when I ask people, “What’s in your wallet?” and follow up with “Don’t leave home without it,” I am not asking about credit cards. I’m inquiring whether or not they have an “In Case of Emergency” card in their wallet. In most cases, the immediate response is no, followed by, “But I have my driver’s license.”

This is when I step in as a healthcare professional to explain the importance of having this emergency contact information accessible at all times. “Think,” I say, “what would happen if you were in an accident, had a stroke, suffered a serious fall, or even merely passed out and couldn’t communicate? How would anyone know whom to call on your behalf?” I then remind the person that a driver’s license provides only your photo, age, height, eye color, and a residential address, none of which helps the authorities or you.

I often support my explanation by citing an incident that occurred while I was working in the emergency room. We had a young male patient who suffered a heart attack on the street and who subsequently died despite the medical team’s valiant efforts. The man had his wallet with his driver’s license, business cards, and credit cards. However, because he didn’t have an emergency contact card, it took me more than five hours to finally locate a family member to deliver the traumatic news.

My professional and personal concern in sharing this informationis indicative of a much larger issue. In 2006 the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 1.6 million emergency room patients nationwide could not provide contact information because they were incapacitated. That’s 1.6 million individuals whose medical decisions were left to total strangers and an even higher number of family members who were denied the opportunity to make decisions for their loved ones. Yet those stressful consequences could have been avoided by taking just a few simple preventive steps.

Wallet Wisdom

There was a time that wallets were sold with a blank identification card behind the window pocket designed for holding a driver’s license, which included a line designated for emergency contact information. Today that feature is rarely found, so we must take the initiative to create our own emergency contact cards. Luckily, it’s a pretty simple thing to do: just write the words “In Case of Emergency” in bold print on a slip of paper (or your business card), then write the name and phone numbers of the person whom you’ve entrusted to make medical decisions for you. Put the card directly behind your driver’s license, as that is where first responders, emergency staff, police, and other authorities always look first when trying to identify someone.

Cell Phone Solutions

Practically every adult and teen carries a cell phone today, even if they aren’t carrying a wallet. In response, safeguard strategies have been created that provide emergency contact information on cell phones.

The most well-known safeguard solution for cell phone users is known as the ICE (In Case of Emergency) campaign. In 2005 a British paramedic named Bob Brotchie, tired of trying to figure out whom to contact for shocked or injured patients who couldn’t provide the information themselves, enlisted the assistance of Vodafone, a cell phone provider in the United Kingdom. After conducting collaborative research, they launched the ICE campaign to encourage individuals to program an emergency contact into their mobile phones. The campaign quickly spread to the United States and has been integrated into emergency procedure training.

When you store your pertinent emergency contact information in your mobile device contact list under the name ICE, emergency personnel can quickly check for the entry and contact the person listed. If you take measures to lock your device, however, it will prevent the authorities from accessing your contact list. In this case, you can provide the same emergency contact information by using an ICE sticker (www.ICEsticker.com) affixed to the back of your phone.

In addition to the sticker notification, several mobile device manufacturers now provide a means to select specific text to be displayed while the device is in the locked position. Check your user’s manual or call your tech support line to find out if your device has this feature.

Though these mobile device techniques are highly recommended, they are still not foolproof. Your phone could get smashed or dropped during an accident, it could get stolen, or you could just not have it with you. Putting a notification card in your wallet should still be the first line of defense.

No-Wallet, No-Phone Solutions

Not everyone carries their phone or their wallet with them at all times. In particular, avid runners, bicyclists, skiers, mountain climbers, kayakers, and others who engage in sports that require them to travel light usually carry only the bare necessities needed to meet the demands of their particular activity.

Several independent companies have come up with safeguard strategies to accommodate these specific needs. Sport ID, noting the lack of adequate solutions available to sports enthusiasts, branched out from basic personal ID bands for medical emergencies to create wearable IDs for sporting and racing events. One of its first prototypes, the Fixx ID, was named after the famous running enthusiast Jim Fixx. They have since customized their product line to include varieties such as the Wrist ID, the Ankle ID, and the Shoe ID, to name a few.

An online search for “sport ID bands” or “medical alert bracelets” will yield a variety of solutions to accommodate almost anyone’s particular needs and style. Modern-day ID creations range from heavy-duty metal links and leather cuffs, to delicate bracelets and lightweight fashionably colored mesh or Neoprene straps. Most styles can be customized with laser-engraved text for your basic emergency contact information. Several companies offer a more sophisticated interactive option that allows you to build a secure, fully updateable Emergency Response Profile that is available to first responders via telephone and Internet.

Be Prepared

The Boy Scout’s motto Be prepared, originating at the start of the twentieth century, maintains its significance today. None of us likes to think about unexpected or traumatic worst-case scenarios, but post September 11, we can no longer deny that the unimaginable does sometimes come to pass. We cannot foresee our futures, but we can protect ourselves and our loved ones from falling victim to unnecessary and undesired consequences. When you take the time to ensure that your emergency contact person’s information is readily available, you are protecting yourself, keeping strangers from making uninformed personal decisions for you, and sparing your loved ones from dealing with burdensome dilemmas.

Technology advances rapidly, and we have all become accustomed to the multitude of timesaving conveniences that accompany that progress. There is still, however, much to be valued, heeded, and preserved in the ways and the wisdom of earlier times. Observing the old-fashioned practice of hand-writing your emergency contact information on a piece of paper and inserting it in your wallet may seem outmoded, but it just might save your life—and it most definitely will protect your rights.

Kathryn (Seng) Gurland, LCSW, is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Cancer Navigation Consultant in New York City. Having lost sisters Judi and Peggy to cancer, Kathy is acutely aware of the need for personalized services for those affected by cancer. Her many years as a medical social worker and private psychotherapist, specializing in psycho-oncology, pain and palliative care, and end-of-life-care, exposed her to the intricacies of cancer and its effect on everyone involved. Assuming the roles of advocate, healthcare surrogate, and caregiver for her sisters motivated her even further to develop PEG’s Group, a private consulting group of Cancer Navigators. The company name, PEG’S Group, originated out of her sister Peg’s name and stands for Personal, Education, Guidance, and Support. PEG’S Group has been both a personal and professional endeavor conceived and developed by Kathy to meet the vital needs within the cancer community that our healthcare system is unable to provide at this time. For more information, visit www.pegsgroup.com. Kathy holds affiliations with NASW, AOSW is on the Advisory Board of the NASW’s Communication Network Committee and is a regular contributor to SocialWorkersSpeak.org.

If you have questions that you would like to see addressed from a social work perspective, please send them to editor@omnihealthmedia.com.