TSA watch: Are screeners preying on sick passengers?

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By Christopher Elliott

The latest TSA horror story comes by way of Lori Dorn, a human resources consultant in New York. Dorn, a breast cancer patient, was flying to San Francisco. She was pulled aside by a TSA agent and told she would have to undergo a pat-down.

“I told her that I was not comfortable with having my breasts touched. I explained that I had a card in my wallet that explains the type of expanders, serial numbers and my doctor’s information and asked to retrieve it,” she explains on her blog. “This request was denied.”

Instead, a supervisor was called over, who told her a physical exam was required. She explains,

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.

Her post, which being widely covered online, is just the latest in a series of incidents in which TSA screeners appear to target visibly sick people.

As I read Dorn’s troubling account, I couldn’t help but remember the last time I saw someone who was dying of cancer. It was almost exactly a year ago, and I was visiting Hawaii’s Big Island with my family. We stumbled into a coffee shop, badly jetlagging and in desperate need of caffeine. We happened to sit at a table next to someone who was perhaps a few weeks from death.

On Death and Dying

The first thing I noticed after we sat down was the book he was reading: Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ On Death and Dying.

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Then I looked up at him and saw all the signs of late-stage disease. He was bald from the chemotherapy and almost skeletal from the weight loss.

He’d come here to die.

I mention this because in many of these TSA incidents, the passenger is as obviously sick as the guy I saw in Hawaii. You don’t need an MD, or to call over a supervisor, to know that the person standing in front of you with no hair really does have a breast cancer, and poses absolutely no security threat — none whatsoever — to the flight she’s about to board.

And there have been many incidents. Too many

• This summer, TSA screeners gave passenger Lena Reppert a once-over when she tried to board a flight out of Northwest Florida Regional Airport. Reppert was 95, in a wheelchair, and suffering from late-stage leukemia. She was visiting her daughter for what would probably be the last time. Reppert’s daughter said screeners demanded her mother remove her adult diaper. “I ran with her to the bathroom and stripped her down,” she told FOX News. “I got back to the line and just started bawling.”

• Earlier this year, TSA agents in Detroit botched a pat-down of cancer survivor Thomas Sawyer of Lansing, Mich. They left him covered in his own urine. Sawyer is a bladder cancer survivor who wears a bag which collects his urine from an opening in his abdomen. “Every time I tried to tell them about my medical condition, they said they didn’t need to know about that,” he told MSNBC.

• And in late 2010, during the pat-down craze, a longtime Charlotte, N.C., flight attendant and cancer survivor, Cathy Bossi, told a local television station that a TSA screener forced her to show her prosthetic breast during a pat-down. The 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.’ She said, ‘Well, you’ll need to show me that.'”

None of this should be happening

The TSA’s stated policy on passengers with what it calls hidden disabilities seems pretty reasonable. But apparently its implementation isn’t, in some instances.

I want to give TSA the benefit of the doubt on these incidents. I want to believe they really thought the bald cancer patient wanted to blow up the plane with her breast implants. And I want to believe the agents thought the adult diaper contained plastic explosives. And that the plastic bag was filled with some kind of combustible liquid. (Related: For disabled fliers, TSA adds insult to injury.)

But I’m having a little trouble with that. Folks, what we probably have here is either a profound lack of common sense or — worst case scenario — TSA agents cynically targeting sick people who fly.

(Photo: foshy dog/Flickr)

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. He is based in Panamá City.

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