This past week, when leaving Las Vegas and heading home to Rhode Island, I had another new experience. The TSA pat-down agent, after making a horrified face when I told her I was wearing an insulin pump, told me she has to check the pump itself and then my skin where I was wearing it. Since it was in my bra, it was a new-to-me, highly intrusive variation on the different-in-every-city pat down procedure. When asked why she had to inspect my skin, she said it was standard.
I told her I had never experienced that before, and she said, “Well, then everyone else was not doing their job.”
First time in ten years I’ve ever had that particular experience. So I guess everyone else wasn’t doing their job this last decade? I have seen my fair share of airports, and most of the time, going through security is fine. Except the pat-downs keep getting weirder and weirder.
I don’t enjoy the pat-down experience, but I do it about 90% of the time. Why do I opt for a pat-down? For my previous pumps, their company websites advised to avoid metal detectors, etc. (Animas, Medtronic) and my current pump suggests the same:
“Your pump should not be exposed to X-ray screening used for carry-on and checked luggage. Newer full body scanners used in airport security screening are also a form of X-ray and your pump should not be exposed to them. Notify the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) Agent that your pump cannot be exposed to X-ray screening and request alternate means of screening other than X-ray.
Your pump has been designed to withstand common electromagnetic interference including airport metal detectors.” — from Important Safety Information on the Tandem Diabetes Care website
Since I don’t go through the metal detector unless I’m traveling with my daughter (details here), my only option appears to be a pat-down. TSA.gov assures me that if I opt for a pat-down at the airport, instead of going through the metal detector or the advanced imaging technology revolving door thing*, this is what I’ll experience:
“If you cannot or choose not to be screened by advanced imaging technology or a walk-through metal detector, you will undergo a pat-down procedure instead. You may also undergo a pat-down procedure if you alarm the screening equipment and/or at random. The pat-down will be conducted by a TSA officer of the same gender and you may ask that the TSA officer change their gloves before performing a pat-down. The TSA officer will ask whether you have an injury or tender area to treat such areas accordingly during a pat-down.
You may request to have a pat-down in private and be accompanied by a companion of your choice. You may bring your carry-on baggage to the private screening area and may request a chair to sit if needed. You will not be asked to remove or lift any article of clothing to reveal sensitive body areas. Please note a second TSA officer will always be present during a private pat-down screening. Learn more from these frequently asked questions.” — from the TSA.gov website, under Pat-Down Screening
TSA has a number you can call for further explanation. There’s even a card that I can present, making my case on paper that I’d like a minute to explain myself. And our friends at the American Diabetes Association have provided some good, “what to expect” information on their website.
I’ve had dozens of pat-downs and these experiences are diverse but not remarkably so. Sometimes the woman who is screening me asks me to touch the Dexcom transmitter and have my hands swabbed; other times, the transmitter is ignored entirely. Sometimes they check the bottoms of my feet. Sometimes they confess that they have a diabetes connection. Sometimes they want me to hold the insulin pump in my hands during the screening while other times it’s okay to keep it where it is. I’m always asked if I want a private screening. I’m always asked if I can stand for five minutes. And I’m always asked to face in the direction of my belongings.
Thankfully, most often the security experience is completely mellow and fine.
But there are some weird, unsettling moments. Like the TSA agents who run their hand from my ankle to my groin, jamming their hand forcefully against areas of my body that I’d rather not have jammed. Or the time I was asked to take my pants down for a (in my experiences) rare visual inspection of my sensor. There was one time that a lady tickled me the entire time (Dave Rogers from Dexcom can attest to that awkwardness, as he watched, horrified, from the next aisle over), but that was more weird than wrong. There was the time I was made to feel like my rights had been stripped. And it’s not always the physical acts taking place that are varied, but the response from TSA. Apologetic, apathetic, or stoic expressions from the TSA agent are easy to roll with; the moments where I feel judged or like I’m annoying them for opting out are not as fun.
There doesn’t appear to be a true standard operating procedure for interactions between TSA and people with diabetes, but there should be. I should not have my genitals slammed by an agent. I should know whether or not my sternum will be examined during a screening. My medical situation should not keep anyone from doing their job, but I should know what to truly expect so that I can prepare, not be blindsided by the different ways that TSA executes this screening. There are lots of resources I can point to that outline my rights, but I need to remember what they are in the moment of examination and stand up for myself. Because no one wants to see my underpants. And I sure as hell don’t want to show them.
* Revolving doors are terrifying. I’ve gotten stuck in them more than once and it’s super awkward and always embarrassing. I wish I had more of an Elf approach.