Penny for your thoughts — and vital statistics

I’ve been considering being “chipped,” having a rice grain-sized microchip implanted in my arm.

Pet lovers and livestock ranchers long have implanted chips in dogs, cats, horses, sheep, even iguanas as an ID. If Fido gets lost, the dog pound can scan the chip and find his home.

In recent years, chips have been moving up the food chain. Some people, such as the attorney general of Mexico and his staff, were chipped for security purposes. Patrons of a Barcelona beach club opted to have the implants with antennas linked with their charge cards so they can party without need for purse or wallet.

VeriChip Corp. now is promoting the chips, approved two years ago by the Food and Drug Administration, as an aid in medical emergencies.

The idea is to have the chip speak for you when you can’t speak for yourself. People with Alzheimer’s disease who tend to wander would be prime candidates for a chip. Millions of other people with heart disease, diabetes, stroke, seizure disorders, as well as transplant recipients and people with implanted devices, such as pacemakers, stents, joint replacements also are candidates.

So far, only 200 people, primarily on the East Coast where the company’s VeriMed program has been rolled out, have signed on. The procedure to implant a chip in the right arm is considered virtually painless and complication free. It costs between $200 and $400 plus an annual charge to maintain the records online. The records contain the individual’s ID, primary care doctor, next-of-kin, drugs he’s taking and medical history.

One recipient is William Koretsky, a Bergen County, N.J., cop, who has diabetes and was chipped as a precaution 1-1/2 years ago. During a high-speed chase in May, his brakes failed and he slammed into a tree. He was left in a daze, going in and out of consciousness. The ER staff scanned him and pulled up his name and medical history online, giving them a head start on stabilizing him and monitoring his blood sugar. He was the first person to benefit from being chipped. Koretsky told me he considers the chip a “home run.”

I started to think about being chipped myself.

Back in February 2005, I had two stents placed in my coronary arteries following a mild heart attack. I don’t wear a Medic Alert bracelet, but I do carry a card in my wallet describing my stent. But I have nothing on me about the medicines I now take.

Would a chip make sense?

I decided to get some opinions.

I asked Richard Seelig, a physician and vice president of medical applications at VeriChip: “The best way to appreciate [the chip’s] value is ask yourself right now to list the manufacturer of your stents, when they were placed, which hospital, who was the cardiologist, the diameter of the stents and, if they are coated with a medication, what type. Now imagine you are confused, disoriented or unconscious. How would a treating physician know you have two stents (a chest X-ray would pick them up, but that’s all) and the above details about them.”

If I was knocked loopy, I might have trouble retrieving my name let alone the stent information.

When I mentioned I was considering being chipped, I could tell I was making some people uncomfortable, as though I were contemplating becoming a cyborg. (Cyborg Wolinsky. Sounds intriguing.)

I got a second opinion from my cardiologist, David Looyenga. Right off, he thought chipping might be good for patients with memory impairment. But he basically concluded chipping was a bad idea. He thought that the chances of someone being brought into the hospital unable to communicate about an important health problem were slim.

Looyenga had a conservative Christian upbringing, and that early training triggered a connection between chipping and the Satanic “Mark of the Beast,” which the New Testament warns will be placed on people’s foreheads and hands to enable them to buy things, and also will attract the fury of God.

This was beyond my religious sensibilities.

More significantly for me, he said the numbers on the chip reminded him of the tattoos the Nazis put on concentration camp inmates.

Clearly VeriChip is facing some formidable marketing challenges.

Finally, I asked privacy advocate Liz McIntyre, co-author of Spychips: How Major Corporations and Government Plan to Track Your Every Move With RFID, if I’d be crazy to be chipped. She worries that once people are embedded with numbers, they can be tracked and monitored and “once they can be tracked and monitored, they can be controlled.”

I suppose it would have made a better story to have had the chip implanted. As things stand, the infrastructure hasn’t been established in Chicago. In the end, I decided to take my chances.

For now at least, goodbye Mr. Chip.