TSA watch: Are screeners preying on sick passengers?

By | October 2nd, 2011

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, when 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 and 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, and happened to sit at a table next to someone who was perhaps a few weeks from death.

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

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.

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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., leaving 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, Cathy Bossi, 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. 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.'”

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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. 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.

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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