Unconscionable TSA horror stories8:35 pm - 11/20/2010
TSA forces cancer survivor to show prosthetic breast
Some fliers with medical conditions call new airport security procedures 'humiliating'
By Suzanne Choney
A longtime Charlotte, N.C., flight attendant and cancer survivor told a local television station that she was forced to show her prosthetic breast during a pat-down.
Cathy Bossi, who works for U.S. Airways, said she received the pat-down after declining to do the full-body scan because of radiation concerns.
The TSA screener "put her full hand on my breast and said, 'What is this?' " Bossi told the station. "And I said, 'It's my prosthesis because I've had breast cancer.' And she said, 'Well, you'll need to show me that.' "
Bossi said she removed the prosthetic from her bra. She did not take the name of the agent, she said, "because it was just so horrific of an experience, I couldn't believe someone had done that to me. I'm a flight attendant. I was just trying to get to work."
For Americans who wear prosthetics — either because they are cancer survivors or have lost a limb — or who have undergone hip replacements or have a pacemaker, the humiliation of the TSA's new security procedures — choosing between a body scan or body search — is even worse.
Musa Mayer has worn a breast prosthesis for 21 years since her mastectomy and is used to the alarms it sets off at airport security. But nothing prepared her for the "invasive and embarrassing" experience of being patted down, poked and examined recently while passing through airport security at Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C.
"I asked the supervisor if she realized that there are 3 million women who have had breast cancer in the U.S., many of whom wear breast prostheses. Will each of us now have to undergo this humiliating, time-consuming routine every time we pass through one of these new body scanners?" she said in an e-mail to msnbc.com.
'I was so humiliated'
Marlene McCarthy of Rhode Island said she went through the body scanner and was told by a TSA agent to step aside. In "full view of everyone," McCarthy said in an e-mail, the agent "immediately put the back of her hand on my right side chest and I explained I wore a prosthesis.
"Then, she put her full hands ... one on top and one on the bottom of my 'breast' and moved the prosthesis left, right, up, down and said 'OK.' I was so humiliated.
"I went to the desk area and complained," McCarthy wrote. "The woman there was very nice and I asked her if the training included an understanding of how prosthetics are captured on the scanner and told her the pat-down is embarrassing. She said, 'We have never even had that discussion and I do the training for the TSA employees here, following the standard manual provided.' She said she will bring it up at their next meeting."
If she has to go through the scanner again, McCarthy said, "I am determined to put the prosthesis in the gray bucket," provided to travelers at the security check-ins for items such as jewelry.
"Let the TSA scanners be embarrassed .... not me anymore!" she wrote.
Sharon Kiss, 66, has a pacemaker, but also has to fly often for her work.
"During a recent enhanced pat-down, a screener cupped my breasts and felt my genitals," she said in an e-mail to msnbc.com "To 'clear my waistband' she put her hands down my pants and groped for the waistband of my underwear.
"I expressed humiliation and was told 'You have the choice not to fly.' "
The remark infuriated Kiss, who lives in Mendocino, Calif. "Extrapolate this to we should not provide curb cuts and ramps for people confined to wheelchairs because they can choose to stay home ... This a violation of civil rights. And because I have a disability, I should not be subjected to what is government-sanctioned sexual assault in order to board a plane."
No planned changes to security
So far, the government is not letting up on the enhanced screening program. TSA administrator John Pistole said this week at a Congressional hearing on the matter that "reasonable people can disagree" on how to properly balance safety at the nation's airports, but that the new security measures are necessary because of intelligence on latest attack methods that might be used by terrorists.
Gail Mengel, of Blue Springs, Mo., is used to being patted down; she had a hip replacement five years ago.
"I admit that I was relieved when I flew last week and was able to spend a few seconds in front of the X-ray screen in Seattle and Denver," she said in an e-mail to msnbc.com. "I have heard medical experts say the level of radiation will not hurt us. And frankly I was happy to realize I won't have my body touched, patted and rubbed anymore.
"Unfortunately last weekend, I arrived at the New Orleans airport and learned that airport staff (was) still being trained in using the X-ray machine. Because my hip replacement sets off the security buzzer, I was faced with the new regulations."
While she is "used to" being patted down, "this experience was certainly much more personal, uncomfortable and embarrassing," she said. "Every part of my body was touched. I do not want to be harmed by radiation, but the experience was painless and quick compared to what I have faced over the last five years. I support security measures but I also hope we can be assured of safe procedures."
One man, from Nashville, wrote in an e-mail that "as a handicapped person, I am sick and tired of being 'raped' at the security line. I lose my crutches and leg orthotics to be 'nuked' by the X-ray machine. Then manhandled by the pat-down, followed by chemical swabbing for 'possible explosives.' ...Enough is enough."
Said Mayer, the longtime breast cancer survivor: "I am outraged that I will now be forced to show my prosthesis to strangers, remove it and put in the X-ray bin for screening, or not to wear it at all whenever I fly. To me, this seems unfairly discriminatory and embarrassing for me, and for all breast cancer survivors."
TSA pat-down leaves traveler covered in urine
'I was absolutely humiliated,' said bladder cancer survivor
Image: Thomas Sawyer
Courtesy Thomas Sawyer
Thomas Sawyer, 61, said he was left "humiliated" and covered in urine after undergoing a TSA pat-down.
By Harriet Baskas Travel writer
A retired special education teacher on his way to a wedding in Orlando, Fla., said he was left humiliated, crying and covered with his own urine after an enhanced pat-down by TSA officers recently at Detroit Metropolitan Airport.
“I was absolutely humiliated, I couldn’t even speak,” said Thomas D. “Tom” Sawyer, 61, of Lansing, Mich.
Sawyer is a bladder cancer survivor who now wears a urostomy bag, which collects his urine from a stoma, or opening in his stomach. “I have to wear special clothes and in order to mount the bag I have to seal a wafer to my stomach and then attach the bag. If the seal is broken, urine can leak all over my body and clothes.”
On Nov. 7, Sawyer said he went through the security scanner at Detroit Metropolitan Airport. “Evidently the scanner picked up on my urostomy bag, because I was chosen for a pat-down procedure.”
Due to his medical condition, Sawyer asked to be screened in private. “One officer looked at another, rolled his eyes and said that they really didn’t have any place to take me,” said Sawyer. “After I said again that I’d like privacy, they took me to an office.”
Sawyer wears pants two sizes too large in order to accommodate the medical equipment he wears. He’d taken off his belt to go through the scanner and once in the office with security personnel, his pants fell down around his ankles. “I had to ask twice if it was OK to pull up my shorts,” said Sawyer, “And every time I tried to tell them about my medical condition, they said they didn’t need to know about that.”
Before starting the enhanced pat-down procedure, a security officer did tell him what they were going to do and how they were going to it, but Sawyer said it wasn’t until they asked him to remove his sweatshirt and saw his urostomy bag that they asked any questions about his medical condition.
“One agent watched as the other used his flat hand to go slowly down my chest. I tried to warn him that he would hit the bag and break the seal on my bag, but he ignored me. Sure enough, the seal was broken and urine started dribbling down my shirt and my leg and into my pants.”
The security officer finished the pat-down, tested the gloves for any trace of explosives and then, Sawyer said, “He told me I could go. They never apologized. They never offered to help. They acted like they hadn’t seen what happened. But I know they saw it because I had a wet mark.”
Humiliated, upset and wet, Sawyer said he had to walk through the airport soaked in urine, board his plane and wait until after takeoff before he could clean up.
“I am totally appalled by the fact that agents that are performing these pat-downs have so little concern for people with medical conditions,” said Sawyer.
Sawyer completed his trip and had no problems with the security procedures at the Orlando International Airport on his journey back home. He said he plans to file a formal complaint with the TSA.
When he does, said TSA spokesperson Dwayne Baird, “We will review the matter and take appropriate action if necessary.” In the meantime, Baird encourages anyone with a medical condition to read the TSA’s website section on assistive devices and mobility aids.
The website says that travelers with disabilities and medical conditions have “the option of requesting a private screening” and that security officers “will not ask nor require you to remove your prosthetic device, cast, or support brace.”
Sawyer said he's written to his senators, state representatives and the president of the United States. He’s also shared details of the incident online with members of the nonprofit Bladder Cancer Advocacy Network, many of whom have offered support and shared their travel experiences.
“I am a good American and I want safety for all passengers as much as the next person," Sawyer said. "But if this country is going to sacrifice treating people like human beings in the name of safety, then we have already lost the war.”
Bladder Cancer Advocacy Network executive director Claire Saxton said that there are hundreds of thousands of people living with ostomies in the United States. “TSA agents need to be trained to listen when someone tells them have a health issue and trained in knowing what an ostomy is. No one living with an ostomy should be afraid of flying because they’re afraid of being humiliated at the checkpoint.”
Eric Lipp, executive director of Open Doors Association, which works with businesses and the disability community, called what happened to Sawyer “unfortunate.”
“But enhanced pat-downs are not a new issue for people with disabilities who travel," Lipp said. "They've always had trouble getting through the security checkpoint."
Still, Lipp said the TSA knows there’s a problem. “This came up during a recent meeting of the agency’s disability advisory board and I expect to see a procedure coming in place shortly that will directly address the pat-down procedures for people with disabilities.”
This can't go on. It just can't.