Throw the Migraine Advocate off the Plane?

Have you ever worried that medical supplies and equipment for your Migraine or other health issues might cause a problem going through security at an airport? Think you’re safe once you’ve made it through the TSA gauntlet that leads to your gate and the illusion of safety?

That wasn’t my experience flying in June.

As a passenger and the purchaser of airline tickets and seats, we realize there are certain rules and responsibilities that must be followed by both the carrier (airline company) and the passengers. There are rules, and there are laws. A good passenger will login and get the latest and greatest information on their chosen airline’s website just to be sure they won’t have any problems. (Check!) There is so much stress involved in flying these days, that even a few moments could ruin your entire trip.

So, what do you do when you find yourself confronted with multiple airline personnel who insist on taking your carry-on bag filled with medicines, medical equipment and medical supplies, away from you as you stand ready to step your first foot onto the plane?

This is my shocking cautionary tale…

If you’re me and alone, the first thing I do is cheerfully let them know I understand my responsibilities and the rules as well as their responsibilities and rules. I also know what the law states re: medical necessities and I’m prepared. I stand up for myself, with a firm and steady smile, even in the midst of a Migraine attack. If you are a regular part of my audience, you know I am also always, always polite.

In this case, the flight I was on ended up being a smaller plane called a CRJ900 (9E). This means their overhead capacity is also smaller, and at a premium. Before boarding, personnel walked through the gate area and gave out special luggage tags to nearly everyone, informing them there would be no room for carry-ons that weren’t extremely small. Translated, this meant that it didn’t matter if your bag was within the airline’s guidelines. If it caught their eye, it couldn’t go. There would be no charge, but basically anything with wheels ended up confiscated and checked and put below with the rest of the luggage.

For a person with more than one ongoing and unpredictable medical condition (not to mention a current and nasty Migraine attack in progress), this is a scary prospect. So, I not only explained my situation to the person who tried to give me a luggage tag and told me to check my under-sized and approved carry-on (check!), but I also went up to the desk to talk with the gentleman there who seemed extremely nice and very understanding.  I wanted to be sure there would be no problems and everything would go as smooth as possible. He assured me that he had promised over the loudspeaker that everything would work out just fine, and he meant it. He was there to make sure my flight went well.

When I told him I could not be without the medical provisions that filled my bag, he was kind. He checked the manifest and informed me that the plane was not full. If I was willing to give up my great aisle seat (for which I’d purchased an earlier ticket to get) and move to a less desirable seat in the very back of the plane, I would be assured to have the room I needed for my bag, but also a (hopefully) quiet row all to myself where I could be miserable with my Migraine in peace. Being Migrainey next to the smell of the restroom didn’t sound like fun to me, but you could tell he really wanted to be helpful, and I was so very grateful at the thought I might even get the chance to lay down during the flight.

God bless this man, because from this point on, things got very, very ugly.

I sat at the gate and had a conversation with another visibly shaken lady, who it turned out hadn’t flown in years. I explained the procedure with a smile, made cheery small-talk and told her, “This is so easy, there’s no reason to stress at all. The next thing you know, you’ll be at your destination!”

We were the last two persons to give up our tickets. I stayed with the lady and made more small talk, hoping to ease her mind and take away some of that stress she’d talked about. As a medical first responder, I am often the person there who takes a patient’s hand and talks to them to get their mind away from their fright.

After explaining myself, in detail, again, to the (different) person who took my ticket, I made my way to the plane. I received a lecture for which I felt inappropriate shame, and as I walked, tried to talk myself out of feeling badly about something over which I had no control. I was looking forward to an amazing time in Boston!

When I got to the plane, literally ready to put my foot in the door, I was confronted by a woman who physically tried to take my carry-on, making it crystal clear that there was no way I was getting on the plane with it. She was joined by several other personnel who confronted me, reaching for my bag, separating me from the nervous lady who just wanted to get on board and fly without any problems. She stood there looking horrified.

I once again explained to personnel what was in my bag, and that I needed it for my flight. The woman became visibly agitated, and loud and told me to empty it and put it all in my computer bag. I said “I’m sorry, I wish I could.” I explained that, had that been possible, I wouldn’t be carrying a computer bag and a carry on in the first place. My carry-on was full as was my computer bag, but since I had flown many times with these in the past, I knew from experience either one would fit under the seat in front of me.

A lecture/argument ensued.

Finally one of the many personnel surrounding me noticed the shell-shocked lady behind me and let her board. I never saw her again.

The stewards of the plane began to take notice and listened as I repeatedly explained that I knew from experience that my bag would fit under the seat, I had an entire row to myself so I could be sick in peace, and I just needed to get on the plane so I could get myself situated before I became more ill. I promised if it didn’t fit, I would talk to a steward about it and we’d figure something out.

Minutes ticked by as the lecture continued.

The argumentative woman with the vest, puffed up, got louder, looked at her watch and with a serious attitude said “You’re telling me there’s no way you can do without this stuff for this short flight?” and I replied, “Ma’am, I really wish I could. Believe me, I wouldn’t have this with me if I didn’t need it. I’m very sorry I’m a problem. I followed all the rules. I did everything your airline and the law says I am supposed to do to carry my medical necessities on board. I really need to get to my destination, and I know from experience my items will fit. Can you promise me I’m not going to get stuck again on the tarmack for an additional hour and a half?”

She ordered me to take my meds now, before I board, and they’d put it all below. She offered water if I needed it.

I started to cry at the demoralization of having to take my medicine in ways other than in-my-mouth-and-with-a-swig-of-water like most people, and briefly considered explaining that to her and the entire crew in detail, knowing they would be embarrassed. But thanks to the dryness of my Sjogren’s syndrome, no tears escaped my glasses and I bucked it up instead. I replied that wasn’t possible in this particular instance, or I would be truly happy to do so.

I just couldn’t make myself feel even worse. Not to them. Not today. Not like this. It didn’t matter anyway.

She became even angrier, and if looks could kill, I would have vanished at that moment with a giant puff of smoke and large, hot red flames coming from my hair. She got even louder still (she’s up to yelling at this point, each word cutting through my Migrainey brain like a knife.) I looked around at all the other official personnel standing around me, expecting at least one of them to put a hand on her shoulder, or somehow intervene or at least look apologetic. I couldn’t believe what I was experiencing.

Then, the worst thing I could imagine happened.

I’m saying this as nice as I know how, because I know everybody has a bad day every now and again (I sure know my day wasn’t starting out too well).  The argumentative, loud woman with the vest kicked out her hip, pointed her finger and told me I had a choice. Check the carry-on bag and put it below, or I wasn’t getting on the plane. “Period. That’s your choice.”

I was headed to International Headache Congress in Boston. This was important and vital, not only for me, but for all my patients who were counting on me. I was alone, and sick, and getting sicker by the moment. If I didn’t make this flight, I had no idea what I’d do. But I had no idea what I’d do without access to my medical supplies. I had to get on this flight and decided I was willing to take the issue as far as I had to, because the only thing that equaled my need to get on the plane, was my need for my medical supplies.

But I was also Migraining. Every time she yelled at me cut through my head like a samurai sword, and I tried hard not to flinch. I also have some other serious health issues that require all – not just some – of my meds and supplies (including items like the neck pillow and special seat I needed for my back) in that bag. What was I to do?

I was dumbfounded, figuring out what to do next, when a stewardess who’d been witnessing the incident stepped out of the plane and addressed the angry woman saying “Why don’t we just let her try. There’s no harm in that is there? The plane’s not even full.”

There was a pause in the woman and I looked at the stewardess with tears she couldn’t see behind my glasses, and said “Thank you so much. I’m so sorry to be such a problem.” I stepped on before the angry woman with the vest could stop me.

What was I doing apologizing for following the rules, and for being sick? I felt belittled, shamed, demoralized that I was so sick I needed a suitcase just for my medical supplies. I argued with myself that I didn’t deserve a seat on the plane. But, at the same time, I really didn’t care. All I wanted was to collapse on my seat with all my “sick stuff” and pray not to vomit.

I got to the back of the plane, where another stewardess stood. She immediately told me I needed to check my carry-on. “It has wheels, so it’s not going to fit.”

Again with the explanation.

“And I’m feeling horribly sick right now. I really need to get into my seat. It’ll fit, I swear.” The stewardess immediately asked me one question – was I contagious? My answer was “I wish. I’d be feeling better than I am right now if that was the case.”

Then it hit me…. so, that’s what all the fuss was about – the wheels? Well, my bag was soft sided and smooshy. It took me less than 5 seconds to get it safely under the seat in front of me despite the fact there was so much room in the overhead that turning it sideways and putting it there would have been simpler.

Thankfully the ride to my first lay-over was smooth. The stewardess who let me onto the plane apologized with a shake of her head, and I was on to the continuation of my flight…

…Where again I had an unbelievable, demoralizing fight on my hands.

To be continued… Conversation with an Airline, and Learning I Have a Record

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The Migraine.com team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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