Some of the most amazing kids I met while doing cardiac ultrasound, weren’t even cardiac patients. They were referred to our clinic to rule out cardiac issues that turned out to be the symptoms of stress and anxiety. It’s hard for someone who lives a “normal” life to wrap their head around that notion – what does a teenager know about stress? What do they have in their life that’s so hard? Wait until they grow up and start paying bills, then they might have something to be anxious about. Right?
How many times have you seen a teenage kid with tattoos and black circles under their eyes and jump to the conclusion that they are little trouble makers in the making?
But, you never know someone else’s story. Today I want to share two stories that have stuck with me for years.
The first story is about the sweetest kid you could ever want to meet. I noticed him in the waiting room. He was sitting with a custodian of some kind – the clipboard with the “official” looking papers, the lanyard around the neck, and one those weird walkie-talkie type phones attached to his belt were dead giveaways. I noticed right off the bat the tattoos on the boy’s hands and forearms. I looked at him and smiled and almost did a double take when I saw the tattoos on the kids neck and one cheekbone.
“Good morning.” I said to cover my reaction. He ducked his chin, looked at the floor and said good morning back to me. That’s when I saw the tattoos on his eyelids. All of his tattoos looked like they were done in someone’s basement with a homemade machine using a nail gun and a carpet tack, and were so warped and faded you couldn’t read them.
My first thought was, “Why would you do that to yourself?”
I picked up the papers from the front desk and called my patient’s name. It was the boy covered in tattoos.
Once in the echo room, I explained the test to him and asked if he had any questions. He was so polite and flat out sweet I knew I was going to like him. I was expecting to see more tattoos when he took off his shirt for the study, but was surprised to see that he didn’t have any ink on his chest or biceps. Only on his hands, forearms, neck, face and eyelids. I could tell he was nervous so I used my standard trick and asked if he had pets.
That’s all it took. He relaxed and by the time we were finished with the echo, I learned the story behind the tattoos.
Remember that I said my first thought was why would you do that to yourself? Well, he didn’t. His father had been the one to do it. He started using his son for tattoo practice when he was thirteen. Someone finally stepped in AFTER the patient’s father tattooed his son’s eyelids.
Let that sink in a minute.
The patient had been living in a state funded home for boys ever since, but will be eighteen in a little less than a year and will be on his own.
Now let THAT sink in.
The second story I want to share is about the girl I met who had some of the prettiest tattoos I’ve ever seen.
I commented on the tattoo of a small baby elephant with its trunk raised on her arm. I said, “I love them all,” which was true – they were all little pieces of art, “but I like this one the best.”
She looked me straight in the eye, stared at me for a minute without speaking, then said that it’s in memory of her best friend that had committed suicide two years ago. “She actually drew this picture herself. I took it to the studio and they copied it exactly.”
Then she took my hand and told me the rest of her story.
The girl with the tattoos had attempted suicide the year before. She was a victim of rape, that started when she was four. Her friend who had committed suicide two years ago – who was also a victim – was the only person she had confided in. But instead of dying, she lived to testify against the man who had tortured her for twelve years.
He’s going to prison for sixty.
She drew the rest of the tattoos herself and wants to be a tattoo artist who uses art as a way to help people cope with trauma.
The time I spent in pediatrics taught me a lot, the most important thing I learned was that you should never judge a kid by its ink.



  1. Thank you – what an awesome reminder to not judge a book by it’s cover, there’s always a story, sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes wonderful, sometimes a bit of both.

  2. Indeed. I worked with a wonderful young woman who had 26 tattoos (one for every year of her life). There didn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason – she had everything from Star Wars to ivy to Bugs Bunny to butterflies and flowers. When I inquired she told me the story – heartbreaking. An abusive father who beat her mother and constantly told her that she was a mistake and a waste of space. When she was 13 he committed suicide – in front of her. The tattoos were her attempt to remember good things from her life and to expunge the bad. She has since found the love of her life and no longer feels compelled to get more tattoos. She is in a happily ever after place.

    1. I personally love them, always have – from the time I was little and the only ones I’d ever see were old vets and their Navy tattoos ❤. Every one holds a story.

  3. You are amazing with these kids. Oddly enough your story went right a along with part if our youth minister sermon .
    I guess I needed to hear again not to judge a book by its cover

    1. I loved those kids, best part of the job was meeting so many different people and hearing their stories. I was lucky, they taught me a lot.

  4. Wow! What a powerful story! It’s so convenient to be lazy and judge someone without putting in the work to find out who that person really is behind the facade. I spent a career as an investigator in the criminal defense arena. I can’t count the number of former clients who left lasting, positive impressions on me when most people would look at that same person and just see another booking photo and number. Everyone has a story to tell. And everyone’s story needs to be heard. Thank you for being a good listener, Mandy and sharing this gem with us.

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