I don’t fly very often–in fact, I think that I’ve been on three flights in the past 10 years. The last flight was a family trip to Orlando out of JFK in New York–and I can still recall how humorless our airport experience was.
“This doesn’t feel like the start of a family vacation,” I muttered to my husband as we waited in a stalled, somber security line surrounded by four marines holding guns and a half dozen TSA agents barking commands to the crowd. “This feels like we’re crossing through a military checkpoint–it’s kind of creepy.”
Yesterday I went through the imaging scanner at JFK Terminal 4 for my Virgin America flight to San Francisco. Evidently they found something, because after the scan, I was asked to step aside to have my breast area examined. I explained to the agent that I was a breast cancer patient and had a bilateral mastectomy in April and had tissue expanders put in to make way for reconstruction at a later date.
I told her that I was not comfortable with having my breasts touched and that I had a card in my wallet that explains the type of expanders, serial numbers and my doctor’s information (pictured) and asked to retrieve it. This request was denied. Instead, she called over a female supervisor who told me the exam had to take place. I was again told that I could not retrieve the card and needed to submit to a physical exam in order to be cleared. She then said, “And if we don’t clear you, you don’t fly” loud enough for other passengers to hear. And they did. And they stared at the bald woman being yelled at by a TSA Supervisor.
I’ve been through long hospitalizations with my son and I know how it feels to come out the other side–you’re grieving, shock-y, ping-ponging emotionally. Dorn isn’t even fully out the other side yet: she is still recovering from chemo, coping with the loss of her breasts, hair, and vitality, and waiting to undergo reconstructive breast surgery. The prosthetics that set off the sensors at the airport are “tissue expanders,” devices that will enlarge over time to create pockets in Dorn’s chest where her breast implants will be inserted. The process–which I’m going to assume causes tenderness in the post-surgical site–is described this way on the product’s website:
[The expander is] a silicone shell that is filled slowly over time with saltwater to stretch the skin and make room for your implant. The expander is placed under [the] chest skin at the site of [the] planned reconstructed breast. A small needle is used to fill the expander with sterile saline. The needle is inserted through the skin to a “fill port” located inside the expander. Gradually over time, the overlying tissues expand.
To be clear: Dorn was not refusing to be examined by the TSA agent, she was simply asking for a private examination (which according to the TSA’s website, she was entitled to) and most likely wanted to explain to the agent how easily she could be hurt prior to being examined. Instead of being treated with compassion and dignity, she was loudly threatened.
After this story started to gain media traction, the TSA sent Dorn a letter of apology where it acknowledged that it had “missed the mark” in training agents to be culturally competent in engaging with prosthetics-wearers, and said:
TSA has just rolled out an in-service technical training course focused on screening prosthetics. This curriculum focuses on all types of prosthetics and the requirements of the standard operating procedures related to the screening of Persons with Disabilities and Medical Conditions. It is a four part curriculum with one of the modules focusing on different scenarios and the decision making (critical thinking) process and the outcomes of the decision made by the officer. The training should be complete nationwide in a little over a year.
To my mind, the fact that the TSA is only getting around to this sort of training now, 10 years after the 9/11 attacks, is not the only “missed mark.” Dorn’s experience is part of a larger problem: security theater in a post 9/11 world. The tragedy isn’t just that Dorn was treated with such cavalier insensitivity, it is that the cruelty was patently unnecessary–who really believes that a TSA agent requires critical thinking training in order to treat a cancer survivor compassionately? Perhaps it is not the agents’ training that is flawed. Perhaps it is a society that is itself still shock-y and ping-ponging over the 9/11 attacks, stuck in Elizabeth Kubler Ross’ bargaining phase of grief. Collectively we have been saying, “Yes, we’ll give up our human right to dignity and compassion, we will not question creepy, intrusive government behavior…just bring back the safety we used to believe existed.” And yet:
When people are bargaining, you should not offer them any false hope. Although there may be practical things they can do which you can offer them, never offer them something that cannot be fulfilled.
Sometimes the best you can do at this stage is point even more at the inevitable, even though this may well tip them into depression (which may well be a necessary move).
How do you engineer an intervention for an entire country gone neurotic with grief? How do we find a balance between airline safety and humane compassion? Before anything else, people who have gone through trauma need their experiences heard. From her blog, Dorn recognized that when she encouraged people this week to share their “horror stories” on Twitter, cc’ing the TSA Blog Team:
Many people shared their TSA horror stories on Twitter cc’ing the TSA Blog Team, inundating them with @ replies. This was the feedback that caused a government bureaucracy to acknowledge something went wrong. Not me. And I thank everyone for it.
I’m not sure if I can say “Mission Accomplished” quite yet, but I can say that the mission has begun. And that’s a helluva start when you’re dealing with the TSA.
Sharing our stories cannot be the endgame, however. Where do we go from here?
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