Posts Tagged ‘TSA’

Backscatter Scanners and Pacemakers

November 16, 2010

As you may remember, I almost flew to Atlanta for the recent Heart Walk, but changed my mind when my parents decided to attend, too. While getting my gear organized for the trip I thought about the new “Backscatter” full body X-ray scanners being installed in airports: how do those things interact with pacemakers? The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) recommends that those of us with Pacer Power avoid the metal detectors, and since I got my pacer I’m not cool around large magnets. After all, the doctors use a magnet to set my pacemaker; it stands to reason that another magnet could scramble it! So I pull out my plastic card and tell the TSA agents that I have a pacemaker and request a hand patdown, and just avoid all that.

But what about the new scanners? Friend or foe? Not knowing, I called my pacer lab. The short answer: We don’t know.

The longer answer: There hasn’t been any testing done on pacemakers yet. It’s not really safe to get a human volunteer to test the scanner (“We don’t think anything well happen, Fred, but just in case… sign this release form.”) so the next best plan is a series of tests, usually involving calibrating a pacemaker, taping it to a mannequin, and sending him through a scanner – simulating what would happen to a traveler who happens to have a pacemaker.

If the pacer checks out, you run the test again, and again, and again, to see if going through the scanner multiple times will affect the pacer. Then you run the test yet again – with longer scans and higher radiation levels, to see if that affects the pacemaker. And you keep repeating these tests to eliminate the possibility of a fluke reading.

Wow, that’s pretty involved. It would probably be better if we could borrow a scanner for a few weeks, but I doubt that is going to happen. TSA like to keep things close to the vest, and I bet that goes double for their newest secuity tool. So I figure that the best thing to do if you have a pacemaker is not to risk it – just keep asking for a hand search.

Thankfully, my home airport is so small that they only have three gates. It will be quite a while before they get a Backscatter scanner!

Heart Force One

February 17, 2009

Received an e-mail just before I left for Atlanta, one of the larger airlines has changed my flight schedule. According to them, the next flight I plan to be on will now leave before before the chickens wake up. And the flight that brings me home arrives at the crack of dawn. And they let me know this so I wouldn’t be inconvenienced! Grrrr!

Flying commerical is getting ridiculous. I swear, if I could find a leftover New York Air jet, I’d buy the thing. It’s already red… I’d repaint the apple symbol on the tail to look like a heart, hire a crew, and rename it Heart Force One! President Obama would be jealous, but he’s got a better car than I do.

Air Travel is difficult enough for anyone with a chronic illness. You need to make sure you have all your required medication – plus extra, just in case. Always take extra, you never know what might happen. When I was in DC in 2007, the airport was closed when I arrived for my flight home. It reopened an hour later; as you can imagine, all of the flight schedules were scrambled. The airport book store loved me – I read two magazines and a book on the Lincoln Assination before I got out of there!

Never, ever pack your medicine in your checked baggage: You may be heading for Dallas but your bag may get on a flight for London. If you have liquid medication, you have an exemtion to the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) 3-1-1 rule: your liquid medication can be in a container larger than three ounces. You still have to declare it and it has to be inspected, and the smart traveler will have a copy of his/her prescriptions. I always assume that Mr Murphy is traveling with me! Plan for the worst and it won’t happen. If it does, you’ll be ready. The TSA makes things a little bit simpler for us by having a page dedicated to travelers with disabilities. Still, flying can be a pain in the… ankle!

But if my plans involve advocating for Congenital Heart Defect survivors, I’ll put up with the hassles of flying. I enjoy that part of travel, and it is important to me.

So keep your eyes open for a candy apple red jet!

A Chance to Teach

October 10, 2008

One of the fun things that happens is when I have a chance to teach others about heart defects. Not just the Social Security Administration policy conference in Baltimore two weeks ago that I attended¬† on behalf of the Adult Congenital Heart Association (ACHA), but those times when the situation just presents itself. My friends who teach might very well call it a “teachable moment”, I just say it is a chance to show people how normal I – and many others with heart defects – are.

One such opportunity arose while I was returning from Baltimore. It occurred while I was clearing security through the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) checkpoint. When I reached the front of the line, I told the first screener that I had a pacemaker and requested a hand search. I was asked to step to the side and wait for another TSA agent to assist me.

In a moment the second agent ran my carry-on through the x-ray machine, then asked me to place my feet shoulder with apart and raise my arms to shoulder level. “Before we begin, is there any unusual items on or about your person that you feel you should tell me about?” (That’s a paraphrase; I don’t recall his exact words.)

“Yes,” I said. “My pacemaker is located on the left side of my abdomen, rather than in my shoulder.”

“I’ve never heard of that before,” he commented.

“It’s just the way my heart works,” I told him, warming to the occasion. “Usually a pacemaker is placed in the shoulder and the leads go down through a blood vessel called the Superior Vena Cava into the heart. (Click HERE for a diagram of the “usual” pacemaker placement) But I’ve had heart surgery and my blood vessels have been moved around. If you go down my Superior Vena Cava, you’ll wind up in my right lung.”

“Wow. You’re a little young to be having heart surgery, aren’t you?”

“I’ve had three; I was born with a heart problem. Had my first surgery right here in Baltimore.”

By that time my pat-down was finished and I was cleared to go. “Are you OK to fly?” the guard asked.

“Oh, yeah,” I said, gathering my stuff. “Most of us with heart defects do pretty well. We have to go slower or take it easy at times, but my life is pretty normal… almost boring, in fact.”

“Boring is good, we like boring around here,” he laughed. “You have a great flight.”

When I get a chance to talk about my heart, it’s not so much that I hope the other person remembers me. I hope that they remember that I’m basically “just a guy” – there’s nothing special about me. Sometimes I have to go slower or figure out a different way of doing things. Every few months I’ve got to go see my doctor. And I have a bucketful of pills that I have to take. But other than that, I blend in well.¬† You can’t find me in a crowd by looking for “the guy with the bum heart.” Even though I’m Cyanotic, you probably can’t tell it. You have to know what you are looking for and even then you could easily miss it. I could very easily be the young man sitting at the next table typing on his laptop.

I’m completely normal.