I get my nutrition through a bag of TPN (Total Parenteral Nutrition). Not ideal, but for the last eight months, this has been my life.
When I was diagnosed with a genetic form of colorectal cancer, I was told that after surgery I might develop benign tumors. I was too focused on beating cancer to think about the after-effect — until it happened. These inoperable desmoid tumors worked their way into my small bowel, establishing fistulas, or abnormal connections. To give my small bowel a rest and time to heal, my doctors put me on TPN.
On a recent trip home from Boca Raton, Fla., with my daughter Julia, TPN turned me into a traveler with special needs.
It started when I misplaced a vital piece of the TPN pump apparatus, and looking for it caused us to miss our flight. The airline got us a backup plan — but we made it to security with just 30 minutes to spare.
And we had Theo the kitten.
As instructed, I took him out of his carrying case, and he promptly catapulted himself over the conveyer belt and across the room before he stopped long enough for Julia to race over and capture him. Our fellow travelers applauded her feat.
The next feat was passing muster with the Transportation Security Administration.
I’m thankful that security is stringent, securing safer travel. I never even complained about the post-metal detector pat-down.
I just never realized how insignificant the quick pat-down was until I had to go into a private room for a full pat-down.
Apparently, these TSA agents had never seen a bag of TPN. I had a letter from my doctor. The contents of the bag were described on the label.
Six agents unhurriedly discussed protocol. One came back and asked to inspect the bag’s contents. No, I explained as patiently as I could. That stuff goes directly into my bloodstream through the catheter in my arm, and there is no way I was going to let a TSA agent contaminate my only available meal.
More discussion. They decided to X-ray the TPN. With 15 minutes to boarding, my TPN passed inspection. I, however, was another matter.
I was escorted to a private room with a female TSA agent and her understudy. It was actually a storage room, full of lunches, coats, and other random objects.
Lift your shirt, lower your pants. Why my pants? The PICC (peripherally-inserted-central-catheter) line is in my arm! All the while, I was being peered at by women who seem never to have seen medical devices before.
Angry, frustrated, and humiliated as I was, I was even more grateful to be dismissed in time to get my flight.
As I walked away, I noticed other passengers with medical devices being treated the same way. I was not consoled.
Did I mention how hungry I became, unable to hook up the TPN pump? No scarfing down a granola bar for me.
But the ordeal was not yet over.
Last on the plane, we got middle seats. The cat had to move from beneath my seat to my daughter’s because the woman next to me was allergic.
Then the flight attendant informed me that I couldn’t sit in a middle or aisle seat, because the TPN’s tubing and backpack posed a tripping hazard. This dislodged the allergic woman entirely. Despite my row getting free cocktails (not me, of course; I can’t take anything by mouth), I could tell my seatmate was not happy.
TSA has an important job, and I am thankful for all it does to ensure safe air travel. But it seems to me that this work could be accomplished with sensitivity toward those of us who must travel with medical devices that can challenge one’s dignity. My love of travel, adventure, and family is too great to forgo travel, despite body checks in sketchy storage rooms. I suspect that others I saw that day might be too ashamed to brave TSA again, however, and that’s the real shame.
Denise Teter lives in Kimberton, Pa. with her family. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. This guest column appears through our partnership with Inspire, an Arlington, Va., company with condition-specific online support communities for more than a million patients and caregivers.