Prosthetics Become Source of Shame at Airport Screenings

Photo: Passengers Humiliated By Removal of Prostheses in Violation of TSA Rules: TSA Administrator Apologizes to Cancer Survivor After Security Pat-Down Broke Seal on His Urine Bag
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Prosthetic devices were designed to help men and women move on with their lives despite potentially stigmatizing medical conditions, yet they've become a source of distress and humiliation during the new pat-downs by airport security agents.

There's already been outrage over the TSA agent who asked a Charlotte, N.C., woman who survived breast cancer to remove a prosthetic from inside her bra. There was also a bladder cancer survivor from Lansing, Mich., who said he was soaked in his own urine when a TSA agent's pat-down ruptured the seal on his urostomy bag.

"Do these agents have any human understanding that ostomates have these appliances because they have had cancer and the appliances are the aftermath of a battle that was won!" Thomas D. "Tom" Sawyer, a retired special education teacher, posted Monday to the Bladder Cancer Advocacy Network online support group on Inspire.com. "I happen to wear mine with pride but I am also very private about it. The last thing I needed or wanted was to have urine leak in an airport and feel that all the world was looking at me."

Monday afternoon, Sawyer got a phone call from TSA Administrator John Pistole.

"He apologized and asked what I thought should be done," an exhausted Sawyer tweeted to his Twitter followers. "Our message was heard in Washington D.C….My job is done."

Sawyer encountered what mental health experts call micro-aggression: "an act or a situation in which a person in more power subjects a person in less power to either an assault or an insult. They're very cumulative," said psychologist Rhoda Olkin, a professor at the California School of Professional Psychology in San Francisco. They also can lead to depression and anxiety.

""The micro-aggressions that happen to people with disabilities are so ubiquitous," Olkin said in an interview with ABC News. "Now to have it when you travel, at such an egregious level, makes just one more place where you're really disadvantaged."

TSA Website Lays Out Position on Sensitive Medical Cases

TSA's website states its official position on handling sensitive medical cases: "Security officers should not be asking you to remove your orthopedic shoes, appliances or medical device (insulin pump, feeding tube, ostomy or urine bag, or exterior component of cochlear implant) at any time during the screening process… Advise the Security Officer if you have an ostomy bag or urine bag. You will not be required to expose these devices for inspection."

Yet, on Nov. 7, Sawyer was en route from Detroit Metropolitan Airport to a wedding in Orlando, Fla., when a TSA agent performed a pat-down that broke the seal on Sawyer's urine bag, allowing urine to run down his shirt, pants and leg. Sawyer said he tried to warn the agent to be careful with the device, but his words were ignored. He was left with wet urine stains on his clothing. "I was so embarrassed and so petrified of going out into the airport and people would see me and 'smell me.'" Sawyer said.

"I can honestly say this was one of the worst days of my life."

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