T1D Plus the TSA Equals Trauma

I had a bit of a traumatizing experience at the airport a few weeks ago.

I travel fairly frequently – I’d estimate that I hop aboard a flight a dozen times or so per year. As a result, I’m well-versed in the TSA routine that goes down at every airport: Remove shoes/belts/items from pockets. Take laptops and electronic devices of similar size out of bags. Place 3-1-1 liquids in a visible spot. Let TSA agents know before stepping into the full-body scanner that I have T1D and wear a couple of devices. Step out of scanner and allow them to do a hand swab. Wait patiently for the results to come back clean, gather belongings, and move on to my gate.

It’s a very precise routine that I’ve come to anticipate and accept, so really, it’s no wonder that it was bad experience when it deviated sharply from the standard format on my last trip.

I was returning home from a long weekend in Washington, D.C. I queued myself up in the TSA line and when I got close enough to an agent, I let her know that I didn’t want to go through the full-body scanner, because I was wearing a medical device that couldn’t handle it. (The manual for my Dexcom G6 advises users to avoid full-body scanners and opt for pat-downs, metal detectors, or wands, as available. I’m a stickler for following the rules, so that’s why I stuck with the manual’s advice). I’ve had the pat-down before, and while I don’t love it, I knew it wouldn’t be intolerable.

As soon as another female agent was free to conduct the pat-down, I was waved over and subjected to the semi-embarrassing “free massage”. Once it was done, my hands were swabbed. If you aren’t familiar with the hand-swab process, it’s a protocol in which the TSA checks passengers’ hands for any traces of explosives. In other words? My swab always comes back clean.

Except this time, it didn’t. The machine dinged. This prompted a couple of TSA agents to consult one another before coming over to me and informing me that I’d have to wait an undisclosed period of time for another, higher-up female agent to come over, conduct a “more-thorough” pat-down, and forfeit my luggage for a closer inspection.

Deep down, I wasn’t worried because I knew that the more meticulous inspections would clear me for travel. But I couldn’t fight back against the anxiety that flooded throughout my body as I wondered how long I’d have to wait and how much more invasive this next pat-down would be. I struggled to conceal the tears that rolled down my cheeks as TSA agents seized my bags and rifled through them, ruining my careful packing techniques. I was humiliated, and practically had to beg them when I asked to see my cell phone and OmniPod PDM. (I could practically feel my blood sugar going up due to the stressful nature of the situation, so I wanted to check and correct it A.S.A.P.) It only got worse as I was pulled into a separate room and given a pat-down in which the agent actually pulled my pants away from my body to look down inside them, which is just as awful as it sounds. I know that they’re merely performing their job – I don’t fault them for that and appreciate that it’s far from glamorous – but it was horribly demeaning.

When I was finally told I could go, I wordlessly collected my belongings, fighting to shove them back into my suitcase. I made a beeline to the restroom to splash water on my face and calm down. As I waited to board my flight, curiosity took hold of me and I posted a poll on Twitter. I wanted to know if anyone else has ever had an experience like mine. Nearly 241 people answered my poll.

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And I was fascinated by the results. There was no overwhelming majority; in fact, it was rather solidly split down the middle, with only a few more people reporting a negative experience with the TSA. Many of those people responded directly to my poll with tweets of their own that described their experiences:

They nearly ripped my son’s inset out of his thigh for his pump one time. Another time they took his bottle of insulin & tested it & I understand explosives come in liquid form but he was 8 years old. Another time they performed a very thorough and humiliating body pat down on me in order for him to bring his insulin on board.

I’ve never had a difficult experience w/TSA on any flights- international or domestic. They’ve all been very professional & understanding when I said I have an insulin pump/all supplies. I’m sorry you had a tough time.

My husband has to take my daughter through because I completely lose my shit on them. Every single time a hand swipe test. Unbelievable and stigmatizing.

Almost every single time and it infuriates me. They treat your supplies like you’re part of the drug cartel. One held up my bag and with so much attitude “excuse me? What is this?” And I said my medicine and another passenger screamed at the agent saying “you can’t do that!”

Same thing happened to me! They tore apart and destroyed so many of my supplies and I just watched helplessly while crying. If 29 million Americans have diabetes why is TSA so oblivious to what it looks like?!!

While these replies validated to me that I wasn’t overreacting, they also made me sad. Angry. Frustrated. Why is this a thing in some airports? Why isn’t there a better protocol in place for people with diabetes?

Perhaps the most irritating part of it all is that I don’t know for sure why this whole thing happened in the first place. I assumed that it was a fluke on the machine’s end, but after corroborating stories with so many other T1Ds, it’s got me wondering…was my diabetes a red flag of sorts to the agents? Did they think that my supplies were disguised and could be something harmful?

Again, I don’t want to discount the work that the TSA does to help keep travelers safe. I truly do appreciate it and I know that experiences vary at airports all across the world. But…we can do better. Traveling should be fun and exciting, not traumatizing.

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