Sunday—I have volunteered to accompany my friend Louise, as she travels to Portland for major surgery. I plan to pay the airfare myself, with an airline discount benefit. The appointment with a renowned surgeon is set for Thursday.
Monday—Louise calls to get my birthdate. Medicaid will pay my expenses as an escort because the operation is life-threatening. Good news, I guess. Three government offices are involved in this matter—the VA, the Alaska Native Medical Center, and the State Medicaid office. What could go wrong? I know nothing about any of it, but note that travel plans have not yet been made.
Tuesday—We appear at ANMC early in the morning, to pick up a letter of introduction from the Anchorage surgeon to the surgeon in Portland. Louise spends the day calling numbers for the VA and Medicaid, as well as her primary care doctor. Just before 5 PM we are given the paperwork for flights, a hotel for seven days, meals and cab fare. All the medical records have been sent.
Wednesday—We arrive at the Ted Stevens International Airport and stand in line for the TSA. It’s a long line, Louise does not look good, and she walks with a cane. Once again I am shocked that no provision is made for disabled or very elderly people, i.e. if you can’t keep up with the herd, stay home.
Louise is taken aside by a female TSA agent and I am randomly selected for special screening. While I am distracted, Louise is raising her arms in the circular scanner. She’s in there for too long and does not have her cane. Next time I look over, she is standing beside the machine and the TSA agent is patting her down. Louise looks upset, then miserable, as the pat down continues. I am afraid that she will fall and ask why there is no chair for her to sit in. She is traveling for major medical care, has braces on both legs and TSA has her cane. Finally she is led into a private screening room and I am allowed to go with her.
Later Louise explains that in the circular scanner, she could not move her feet far enough apart to satisfy the TSA agent. When she said that, the agent responded, “You can do anything you want to do.” The pat down was aggressive, up to her crotch, frontand back, with everyone looking on. When Louise said, “You’re getting a little too personal there,” the agent said, “Every time you say anything, I have to start all over again,” and she did. Then she said, “We’re going to take you into a private room and you’re going to strip naked.”
In the private screening room, the very determined TSA agent tells Louise to undress and someone will bring a drape. I am beginning to worry about time, and something about a drape doesn’t sound right, so I say, “Why a drape, we’re all women here?” The TSA agent orders Louise to pull her jeans down and Louise complies, uncovering a very large and horrible disfigurement, the reason for the surgery. Louise is crying now, uncontrollably. I cannot restrain myself and shout, “What is going on here? I have to say something, I’m a lawyer. Why are you doing this? I’m going to take a picture of this.”
The TSA agent turns from Louise and raises her hands to block me. No pictures. Louise pulls her pants back on and the TSA agent just walks out. A supervisor arrives as Louise continues to cry. Louise says that she is a veteran and should not be treated this way. She has medical conditions, takes 45 pills a day and has titanium throughout her body. The supervisor apologizes profusely. I do not thank her.
I leave Louise sitting at the gate and run off to get the name of the sadistic agent, and to deliver a written request to the TSA, for the video of the screening to be preserved. Then we fly to Seattle where a wheelchair is provided for the trek to the plane bound for Portland. The voucher for cab fare from the airport to the hotel in Portland is useless. No cab company in Portland is set up to accept the vouchers.
We arrive at the University Hotel where the housing voucher is accepted. It is 10 PM.
The food vouchers are actually prepaid credit cards, $36/day for each of us on Wednesday, and $36 for me only for the next six days. I decide to use them for cab fares as well as food.
Thursday—The high point of the day is the tram ride through the sky from the main University Hospital building to the waterfront building where we are scheduled to show up at 8:15 AM. We meet the renowned surgeon at 10 AM. He is congenial and encouraging as he shows us a CAT scan sent from the Alaska Native Medical Center and explains what he will do the correct the problem. He says, “We do ten or twelve of these surgeries every week, and we see a lot of patients from Alaska.” His examination of Louise takes about fifteen minutes, then he leaves a resident surgeon to do the follow-up.
She states that surgery will be scheduled in two weeks. She is surprised that we expected the surgery to take place the next day. That is not the protocol. Who told us to expect that? Louise is bawling her eyes out, devastated, hysterical. I am stunned: we traveled 1800 miles, through three airports and the ordeal with the TSA, for a meet & greet with the surgeon? And we have to turn around and fly another 1500 miles to return home immediately, the same day?
That is Medicaid protocol. If the surgery was not approved for the next day, we were authorized to fly home on the next available flight, which was at 9 PM. Louise broke down crying on and off all day. She was afraid that Medicaid would not approve another trip, and terrified at the thought of any TSA contact looming at the Portland International Airport. There, we were run through the same drill, but Louise was given a chair. No trauma. She made it home alive and I made it home ready to write this account.
I am wondering now: is there a protocol for basic respect, one American human being toward another? Has medical care become a fantastic, tangled web of agencies, competing interests and financial agreements where patients are mere fodder to be fed into the machine? A disabled woman in her fifties is made to travel over 3,000 miles for a meet and greet?
Should the TSA just display a sign? If you are disabled and use a cane, we will treat you as a terrorist. We’ll take your cane from you and make you stand and move about without it. We’ll run our hands right up into your groin. If you complain, we’ll do it again. If you show up hot on our machines, we’ll send you into a private room to strip. We are protecting the homeland from people like you.
Immediate thoughts: Maybe medical travel for patients should be looked at. Understatement, but it’s the renowned surgeon’s protocol that most gets to me. His patients are coming from Alaska for major/life-threatening surgery, and he has them make the exhausting two-day trip that Louise and I made, just to check in? How much are we going to let the medical care system transfer patients around It’s a whole new frontier.
The TSA just can’t treat disabled people the way it does. I don’t know anything about security but I do know that a bully is always a coward. The TSA agent who went after Louise was a bully. Yet her supervisor said that she followed the protocol. I know that the TSA does not want to humiliate disabled people, but it happened.
Epilogue: I sent this report to the TSA Contact Center and received an auto reply advising me of the steps I needed to take to complete my civil rights complaint pursuant to Department of Homeland Security regulations. I had no intention of filing a civil rights complaint—total waste of time. But just to make sure, I googled TSA abuse, where I found pictures of TSA agents groping elderly women, babies, and elderly men in wheelchairs. My favorite pictures featured younger men, buck naked, being groped in full view of the traveling public, and standing in line waiting for the experience. To me this was convincing evidence that a civil rights complaint would definitely be a waste of time.