TSA Harasses Sick Kid, Family Misses Flight

Apollo. Photo: Renee BergeronA woman traveling with her 3-year-old was so delayed by the way Transportation Security Administration officials handled her son’s medically necessary formula that the two missed their flight. 

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“It’s made flying with him miserable,” Renee Bergeron, a Washington photographer and mother of 14 children, told Yahoo Shine about her youngest child, Apollo, who suffers from a rare heart defect.

Bergeron described the late-September TSA incident on her blog, on which she writes about her large family, including topics of adoption (five of her kids have been adopted), homeschooling, and Apollo’s condition. She then contacted Yahoo Shine with her story.

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“Part of me gets it. There are terrorists. We need to keep people safe,” she wrote. “The other part is irate.”

The TSA looked into Bergeron’s complaint for Yahoo Shine on Friday before issuing the following statement: “We regret that the family did not have a positive screening experience. We strongly encourage passengers with medical conditions to arrive at the checkpoint with ample time for screening. We are committed to maintaining the security of the traveling public and strive to treat all passengers with dignity and respect.”

The trouble began when Bergeron and Apollo, traveling with friends, were going through security at the Sea-Tac Airport in Seattle. They were on their way to California to take part in a photo shoot for a campaign called “Everybody Plays,” which celebrates children of differing physical abilities. That was a great irony, Bergeron said, as “we were only flying because of his medical issues.”

Apollo was born with a condition known as a double aortic arch, which has led to trachea and esophagus problems that make it difficult for him to swallow food. To help him take in enough calories to grow, he’s been outfitted with a permanent gastronomy tube to his stomach, through which his parents feed him high-calorie formula three times a day. It was the cans of formula that sent TSA agents in Seattle into high-alert mode.

“I walked right up to the first agent and told her, ‘My son is tube-fed and this cooler has formula and medical supplies in it,’” Bergeron said, explaining that she had hoped that being direct would be a helpful approach and that it would have prompted a TSA agent to do a thorough search and swab of the items before sending them through to their gate.

Instead, she said, the agent directed her to continue through the line and to put the bag through the X-ray machine, and “didn’t even give a heads-up to the next agent.” That’s when the agent at the machine “freaked out,” Bergeron said, because of the liquid—which was then put through a scan that indicated “explosive residue” had been detected. “Clearly, the things that test for explosive residue don’t work very well,” she said, adding that, at that point, “they surrounded me and began treating me like a suspect—of what I don’t know.”

They were escorted to a restroom then, as Apollo had to go, but Bergeron was not allowed to take him alone. Then the two were ushered to a private room where agents gave Bergeron a thorough pat-down and where a nervous Apollo began to cry and beg his mom to hold him. Bergeron was told she couldn’t touch her son because she could “contaminate” him. “It was horribly traumatic for him,” she said.

“To make a long story short, the flight left without us,” she wrote in her blog. “As it turns out, they don’t hold flights for people suspected of carrying explosives onto the plane.”

Luckily, she told Shine, United Airlines was very helpful, getting mom and son on another flight in just a couple of hours. Bergeron said she plans on filing a formal complaint with the TSA, although she hasn't been able to do so yet due to the government shutdown.

The TSA suggests that families flying with special needs call the toll-free TSA Cares hotline before traveling, for advice on how to best proceed: 855-787-2227. In addition, a spokesperson pointed Yahoo Shine readers to its blog entry regarding explosive trace detection, which offers an explanation of the TSA's procedures.

Similar TSA tales abound, and calling the agency out for them has become a bit of a sport online, through websites including TSA Nightmare Stories and My TSA Horror Story. Recent incidents making headlines have included that of the 3-year-old wheelchair-bound girl being detained, and pushed to tears, on her way to Disney World; a weeping 4-year-old girl being accused of carrying a gun; and a teen girl being shamed by an agent for wearing leggings.

And Bergeron’s incident was not even the first she’d endured because of Apollo’s vital formula. Last year, while she was flying with her son to Texas for medical treatment, a TSA agent poured out one of four precious cans in order to test it. “He almost opened all four, but I somehow convinced him not to,” Bergeron recalled. "It was so blown out of proportion and ridiculous." As for now, she added, “I honestly think I will avoid flying if at all possible.”

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