By Katelyn O’Leary
I go to the hospital twice a week and I am given IV ketamine to combat my CRPS. I rely on Access services, a transportation pool available to people with disabilities, and I use it often. I have over 12 medications, physical therapy options (through USC and other kind offers) and all of this makes me so exhausted. Keeping this information straight in my head is sometimes very difficult.
But all the meds and the pain makes me sleep less and I am prone to anxiety attacks. I avoid dance floors, not because I hate dancing (I love it) but because of the proximity of tons of people (who might smash into my bad leg). These new changes to my life frustrate me and are difficult to adjust to. So with these problems, I am always appreciative and am so grateful for the friends and family I have. Even strangers in public areas are nice, they open the door for me or even help me carry bags or food.
However, my last encounter with strangers in a public place did not go well. In fact it was humiliating, degrading, and caused so physical pain I vomited and dry-heaved.
While traveling back to California, I went through security at the Indiana International airport. When I limped through the body scanner, it apparently detected a heat signature in my groin. A TSA rep whispered to me (since women’s bodies are something to be ashamed of) that the use of tampons, pads, or other things can set off the alarm. I was wearing yoga pants and a t-shirt and I wasn’t menstruating. When they informed me that I would have to be patted down, I panicked. I told them they could pat me down but to please not touch my right leg. They requested a supervisor to come down and “assess the situation.”
The supervisor I had, let’s call her Ms. Benson, told me that the TSA officers would be gentle and that they were not looking to injure me in any way. I told her that if they touched my right leg I would scream in agony and would probably vomit. I explained to them what CRPS is, and that I also have severe allodynia (hypersensitivity so severe that even the slightest touch to my leg is painful) but this did not deter or make them change their minds.
I was taken to a private room and told that if I refused to be touched then I would be escorted out of the airport and that I could “come back.” I don’t live in Indianapolis and I’m not wealthy and I couldn’t afford to just leave and come back whenever. So I told them to get it over with.
The moment the officer touched my leg I started screaming and crying. I tried to jump out of the chair. Ms. Benson and the officer were both startled and alarmed by my reaction and offered to just send me out of the airport – but that wasn’t an option for me as I explained once again. Through my tears and dry-heaving I told them to please get it done and over with. And so the next 2 minutes of their required “patting down” consisted of my bawling hysterically and screaming to “please please just let me go home.” I dry heaved. I bit my hands. I couldn’t sit still in the wheelchair and instinctively moved away from their hands.
When they wheeled me out of that room, I was a complete mess. I was sweating through my t-shirt, dry heaving, and in so much pain I took way more medication than usual to combat the fire burning through my entire leg. Ms. Benson came over and offered water, a bag, anything I wanted to help make me feel better. I declined. I just wanted to get out of there.
Ms. Benson and her TSA squad were not incompetent nor did they harbor any ill will towards my well-being or safety. But they were extremely ignorant. And this is a problem not only for me, but for the thousands of people (young and old) who have nerve disorders and severe pain who feel too scared to travel because of pat downs at the airport.
I felt violated and traumatized after leaving Indianapolis. And during my flight home I reflected on the incident and how I should react. I sent an angry email to the TSA complaint and procedures department. And they gave me several tips to ensure this doesn’t happen again by applying for Pre-check which would mean I would go through the metal detector instead of the body scanner. In addition they told me to contact the TSA passenger support screening assistance hotline and request a TSA officer or supervisor to get you through security and provide assistance. These tips were helpful.
However, there is more the TSA needs to do. The TSA protocols are not “one size fits all.” No one should have to go through severe pain because of an incorrect heat signature. In 2015 through a government audit, it was revealed that TSA has a 95% failure rate. Dan Reed, a Forbes Magazine writer and contributor, shared his thoughts on the matter one year ago. Reed completely tears the TSA apart with his evaluation of the audit ran back in 2015:
“If there was any doubt that the TSA screening stations were ever, or could ever be more than some annoying, badly-acted Kabuki Theater, last week’s TSA audit report put that to rest. ‘Red Teams’ from the TSA’s bloated, ponderous and only modestly more effective parent organization, the Department of Homeland Security, recently managed successfully to get weapons – mostly handguns and fake bombs similar to those actually used by the famous underwear and shoe bombers – past the screeners 67 out of 70 times. That’s a 95 percent failure rate. So, we are left to question why we bother to have a TSA at all? What good are they doing? Why do we spend $7.4 billion of our tax dollars a year on this agency? And why do we pay $2.50 on each airline ticket we buy to pay for it? The oft-quoted (and apparently apocryphal) “Einstein’s definition of insanity” – doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result – would seem to apply here. So it comes down to us – ordinary Americans. After all, we’re the ones who cried “Do Something!” so loud after 9-11 that the shocked members of the 107th Congress did something – something hasty and stupid – and created the ineffective and buffoonish TSA. Lots of security experts at the time knew that what Congress wanted to do would be ineffective, and said so publicly. But the public’s demand for immediate action ruled the day. Now it’s up to us to tell the current 114ths Congress to “Do Something” again, only this time they need to ”Do Something Smart!” – and to stop wasting our money on Security Theater” (Reed, Dan. Forbes Magazine. 8 Jun. 2015. The TSA’s 95% failure rate: Be Careful What You Ask For When Demanding Congress ‘Do Something. 7 Sept. 2016.).
Given this report of inadequacy, I think it’s time Homeland Security did more than audit. There needs to be a protocol for disabled passengers who simply wish to travel without getting hurt. Of course there are options offered by the TSA. But since the TSA has proven to fail at every level – there should be a lot more consideration and possibly new standards set and new people implementing them.
My email to the TSA was forwarded to the TSA HQ Disabilities Branch for National Consideration. I’m not going to give up fighting for fair and equal treatment for patients with CRPS – or other serious and painful disorders. I urge and implore each and every one of you to share your stories, and to email them to the TSA and discuss them here in the comments section. Here is a link to their website: https://www.tsa.gov/contact.
The TSA’s main goal is to keep passengers safe. But they have proven to fail at that. So not only are we not safe, but we are enduring agonizing safety checks. The American public needs to stand up and initiate change.
Image courtesy of www.tsa.gov