What to do when your stoma pouch lights up in a full body airport scan…

Leaving New York from Laguardia yesterday my ostomy pouch was flagged in a TSA full body security scan. I was asked to step aside and told I needed to be searched. In front of staff and a crowd of fellow travellers the security officer pointed at the image of my body on the scanner, with the pouch highlighted on my right, lower abdomen.

The first time this happened to me, also leaving the US, was in 2014 and I wasn’t expecting it. I was shocked and immediately fighting back tears as everyone in the general area looked up at the scanner and down at my abdomen. Luckily for me, my temperament is such that my instinct when embarrassed is to make other people feel even more embarrassed.

So that time while feeling frozen and horrified, I heard myself loudly and very slowly exclaiming, “Oh! That’s poo! It’s in a pouch on the outside of my body because I had surgery! I don’t have a colon! It’s an ileostomy bag!”

Everyone looked away and I swear the TSA guards looked disgusted and like they couldn’t usher me through fast enough and definitely didn’t want to touch me in case they got infected by ostomy-grossness and that was that.

This time was different. I guess because I was expecting it, I was calmer. And because that technique had worked so well a few years ago I deployed it more consciously yesterday.

When the TSA officer pointed up at the screen yesterday I quietly said, “I have a surgical ileostomy. That’s a pouch.”

And she nodded.

And I asked, “Do you know what that means?”

And she said yes but then said very seriously, “But I don’t know how I’m going to clear you. Do you want to go somewhere private for the search?”

I quickly considered my options and felt that the chances of feeling humiliated or actually literally having them make a mess of my brand-new blouse while patting down my pouch in private were higher than if I just submitted in public. Also in public, my power to shame them right back felt stronger.

So I said, “No. I want you to search me right here.”

And I started lifting my blouse.

She panicked and actually raised her voice when she said, “You don’t have to show it to me! I’m going to get my supervisor.”

The two of them came back and reminded me I had the right to request a private room. I declined again. She said she was going to have to feel my thighs right up into my crotch area. Pat down my pouch and feel around the inside of the waistband of my pants.

I spread my legs and said “Go ahead.”

As she searched me a row of seated guards behind her smirked. I think more at how much she clearly didn’t want to be doing it than at me. I don’t think I existed enough to any of them *but* her to be given much consideration at all.  The smirking reminded me of when I was flying out of Paris in 2006 and a woman security guard groped me while her male colleague laughed and egged her on. She giggled and winked at him while she cupped my breasts. I was just a body with no other personal value. Thankfully, my guard this time was ignoring her male colleagues and looking appropriately uncomfortable with our situation.

She then asked me to pat down my pouch so she could test my hands for traces of explosives. That part actually made me a bit nervous because I didn’t know what she was testing for until I googled it this morning and was worried about what other things my pouch could have touched in the factory or in transit or in any of the places it had been that I hadn’t, but of course the test came back negative and she thanked me and apologized and looked like she really might want to quit her job at that exact moment.

I am a white Canadian woman who never quite made it 5’ 4”. My first language is English. I have never been put on a no-fly list or had someone who shares my anglo-name on one who I could potentially be confused for. I know that my calm and assertive confidence and my capacity and willingness to psychologically torment my tormentors would most likely be an asset to any other white, English-speaking travellers with ostomies or any other medical device that gets flagged in a scanner. For racialized people who are already over-scrutinized I am aware that my attitude could easily be read as defiance and punished as such. I’m loathe to give advice. Even internet ostomy sites that don’t seem to account for potential discrimination unrelated to disability, still contradict one another about what to do for the best (I am too lazy to provide links today but if you are curious you can google “ostomy full body airport scan.” Also too lazy to edit any of this before posting). And even when accounting for whether you will be targeted based on your ethnicity or citizenship, your response of course depends on how comfortable you are in any given circumstance and how safe you feel pushing back. I know with certainty that I depend heavily on my ability to read people in the moment and decide on my safest option, revising and adjusting as I go. For example, I really wanted to take a picture of my body scan so I could post it here because I was already writing this in my head but I thought reaching for my phone from the bin that that was still on the conveyor belt would likely be frowned upon.

It’s just another instance (like relationships with doctors, hospitalizations etc. etc.) where there’s so much pressure on patients and disabled people to advocate for ourselves and give each other tips on the “best way to do it” without addressing the baseline fact: we have no power here. And we are vulnerable to the whims of people who do have power. So I got a nice one this time, thankfully. But it was still horrible and I don’t want to write some chirpy “you can do it” post for others who are worried about travelling with an ostomy pouch. I mean of course you most likely can do it, it wasn’t actually my unflappable sarcasm superpowers that saved the day, but if you came across this post because something shitty (hahaha) happened to you in an airport or you’re scared it might and everyone around you is saying “you can do it!” in a hollow way I want you to know that I hear you and it’s better to be expecting that something could happen than shocked like I was the first time. (And also, honestly, if you have an ostomy you have already survived illness and surgery and terrible things and if you can summon any of your rage about having been through hell and now just wanting to get on an airplane to go to a place without being harassed then that might give you some needed fuel. But maybe not, like I said, I don’t give advice.)

And when I got on the plane, here’s what I couldn’t stop thinking about: my seatmate was a very pleasant and nervous man with accented English, who spoke Arabic on the phone with family members when we realized our flight was going to be delayed for over an hour on the runway (after an hour delay in the lounge). He was extremely relieved when I was friendly with him, and I got the impression he’s had trouble with passengers and security in the past although he didn’t give details and I didn’t pry. We scored some extra pretzels from the flight attendant and shared them enthusiastically because we were both starving and aware that an actual meal would be hours away.  And I just kept wondering what would happen if his abdomen had lit up with a pouch under his clothes how differently he might have been treated. There have been numerous efforts to educate airport security (again, not posting links but you can google TSA disability guidelines) about medical devices but if the amount that even helps people “like me” is so limited that I still have to have an airport strategy that I have no real confidence in as it plays out, what happens when people who are already being labeled suspicious in Trump’s America try to explain that their poo pouch is not a bomb?

I am uncharacteristically unoptimistic. I don’t actually know what you should do.

About the author: Julie Devaney is a patient activist living in Toronto. She is the author of My Leaky Body (Goose Lane Editions: 2012) and co-editor of MESS: The Hospital Anthology (Tightrope Books: 2014). My Leaky Body was one of Quill and Quire’s Top Five Non-fiction books of 2012. Julie was named a Woman Health Hero by Best Health Magazine in 2011 and has been profiled on CBC Radio’s White Coat, Black Art and The Current, in Chatelaine and the Toronto Star. Her writing has appeared in The Globe and Mail, Toronto Life and numerous anthologies. Julie has given hundreds of presentations at medical schools, nursing conferences and theatres throughout Canada and in the US and the UK using participatory techniques with patients and professionals to formulate strategies for change and innovation in healthcare. Her work at the University Health Network in Toronto has transformed real patient stories into staff training.
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