The "ER INFO Flash Drive" is a tiny data-storage device — marked with a red cross and the words "ER INFO" — that can be carried on a keychain or around the neck.
In the event of medical emergency, first responders can retrieve a person's basic medical data, as well as contact information for next of kin should the patient be unable to speak for him or herself.
The flash drives were developed after an 88-year-old Palo Alto resident, who makes a habit of walking 2 miles every day, asked for something she could carry that would guide emergency responders should she fall and hit her head.
"When I walk I wear my sunglasses and take my house keys, but that's all I have," said Joan Griffiths.
"Nobody even knows my name or anything about me."
As a service to the community, Avenidas, a nonprofit agency serving Midpeninsula seniors, is offering to load personalized emergency medical data onto the flash drives and supply them to local seniors. A $5 donation is requested.
About 500 had been distributed to local seniors as of mid-March.
Annie Hagstrom, an Avenidas staff member, is making the rounds of local police, fire and health institutions to familiarize first responders with the devices and to encourage people to watch for them — and use them.
"This is wonderful, but only if the emergency departments and first responders support it," said Hagstrom, who helped to launch the flash-drive initiative.
"You have to teach them continually. It's a false sense of security that just by osmosis (first responders) will know what this is."
Hagstrom has been to police departments, Stanford University Hospital, El Camino Hospital and the Palo Alto Medical Foundation to speak about the flash drives.
"We need to do this on a continual basis — once a quarter or every six months," she said.
The flash drives contain emergency data but other information is kept to a minimum, in case of loss.
"It doesn't have your address — nobody's going to come to your house," Hagstrom said.
"All it has is your pertinent information that could save you if you're incapacitated and can't speak for yourself: name, phone number of emergency contact, allergies, medical information."
Seniors also can include forms, such as the Advanced Health-Care Directive or Physician Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment, on the flash drive should they wish to do so.
Hagstrom got interested in the flash-drive project after Griffiths approached her with her concern about what would happen if she fell on one of her daily strolls around the neighborhood.
Hagstrom mentioned it to her physician husband, who suggested flash drives because they're inexpensive and easy to carry.
After vetting the idea through the Avenidas chain of commands with her contacts at local hospitals, Hagstrom ordered a large quantity of labeled drives last summer and began loading them for regular users of Avenidas before offering it to the larger community.
Seniors fill out a simple paper "ER INFO" form with their name, birth date, primary medical conditions, medications and dosages, allergies, preferred physician and hospital, insurance and emergency contact. Avenidas loads the information onto the flash drives.
"We wanted to see the response — the good, the bad, the ugly — and work out the little kinks," Hagstrom said of the ramp-up period.
"The caps fall off, but it's no big deal — it still works. If you wash it in your pocket it still works, but let's not wash it on a regular basis. If you happen to run over it with a car it still works.
"So for a very cheap price it's really worth it," Hagstrom said.
Griffiths has added a flash drive to her keychain, which she carries on her daily walks.
"My daughter lives in Washington, D.C., and she thinks this is a wonderful thing for me to have," Griffiths said.
Hagstrom has created posters to hang in local emergency rooms, with photos and explanations of the ER INFO flash drives.
"It's my dream that every emergency department and every first responder knows what this is," she said.
Stories about the flash drives have begun to filter back.
One first responder was unfamiliar with the device and hesitant to use it. The senior couldn't explain what it was, but said it was from Avenidas. The first responder had never heard of Avenidas.
"That goes back to my rationale that we need to educate everyone," Hagstrom said.
In another case, the wearer was conscious and able to speak for herself, but showed the flash drive to a Stanford nurse, who tried it and was impressed.
"When we're successful we'd like to see if we could extend this beyond seniors to other adults and children, but my goal now is just to see how many seniors we can get this to," Hagstrom said.