By Dr. Akilah Cadet
Do you know what it’s like to not be seen? I do. It was September 4th when I was flying from Post of Spain, Trinidad to Miami at American Airlines Gate 6.
I've been flying with my heart condition (coronary artery spasms) for a year now (I couldn't fly further than LA for almost a year…I live in Oakland). I did everything that I was supposed to. I checked in with the gate attendant for preboard. He asked why and I told him I have a heart condition that makes me slower and need extra time to board. He said, "okay no problem" without any hesitation or further questions and instructed me to listen to his preboard announcement.
When I stood at the end of the line behind three wheelchairs waiting to preboard I was asked to move when another wheelchair came. I explained to the airline employee that I am preboard too. She said, “that's fine” even though she put the person in a wheelchair in front of me.
I stood behind the last wheelchair waiting my turn to preboard.
All the wheelchairs boarded. And I said to the female attendant boarded them that I'm preboard too. She told me to wait. I said other people have started boarding, I need the time, I need to sit down due to my heart. She notified the supervisor (also a woman) and I stood there realizing that it was happening...I didn't matter. I told the supervisor the same thing, that I'm preboard too. She said, "well you shouldn't fly if you have a heart condition" and blamed me for informing her of my condition. I explained that I do and can fly I just need more time.
This is where discrimination began. Flight staff don't tell people in a wheelchair they shouldn't fly. But me, perceived young, pretty, healthy looking, and standing in line with an invisible illness there's no possible way I needed time or assistance to board. I don't use a wheelchair because I want to keep as much independence as possible and quite frankly I don't know what my future will hold.
I told the supervisor that I checked in with the gentleman at the desk. He heard the conversation and agreed. Another attendant said they didn't take your ticket. I said they took the tickets of those with wheelchairs. Then I was told I had to do ANOTHER security check even though I just did one at the checkpoint (they went through everything and even put their hands inside the band of my leggings after the pat down the outside) in order to get to the gate.
The line of passengers built as they boarded the plane. They told me to wait. I told them I need to sit down. My heart was beating faster, the chest pain was starting.
They finally moved me to a security check right before the jetway. I passed the supervisor as I told her that she was discriminating someone with a disability. Once again my bag was checked as I explained that I needed to sit down because of my heart. The security person was quiet. I sat on the floor next to the table where my items where being examined.
"You can't sit on the floor while I look at your bags" she says. I get up and for the millionth time share that I have a heart condition and need to sit down I will need to take my medication. Now the tears flow. I'm alone. In pain. No one cares. I'm in a different country. My chest is in pain. No Wi-Fi to contact anyone. And all I wanted to do is sit down and get back to a normal heart rhythm. I think at that moment the security officer had some compassion as she quickly checked my breasts and bottoms of my feet.
See the thing is I've felt what feels like death...when my heart races so fast I feel pain and can't catch my breath. When I feel the only way to make it stop is for my heart to stop. I never want to feel like that. Every minute of my life is preventing that feeling. Every minute of my life I'm reminded I'm no longer "normal."
Security check number two was complete. Waiting to get on the plane (what I would have prevented if I preboarded) my heart rate soared to 142 beats per minute. Tachycardia aka rapid heart rate is 100 beats per minute. Trust me it's uncomfortable. It’s normal when someone is working out, but I was just existing. It was higher but I couldn’t check because I was with security.
I finally was seated on the plane with the type of chest pain I was trying to avoid. My eyes continued to fill with tears as not being heard is area of trauma for me. In the past two years I've had to advocate for myself in the ER, to specialist, nurses and told my four heart conditions were just stress, anxiety, and or not real pain. I am diagnosed now. Coronary artery spasms are an incredibly rare heart condition that happens to healthy younger people that feels like mini heart attacks and you guessed it, puts me at risk for an actual heart attack. I have spasms daily. Even though they happen whenever, stress is one of the things that can increase spasms.
Safe in my seat I listened to Solange reminding me that I have the right to be mad, took a nitroglycerin (what’s given to people who have a heart attack to almost instantly open the arteries and minimize chest pain) and deep breaths between my sniffles. I kept monitoring my heart rate until tachycardia subsided. Finally connected to Wi-Fi I texted my therapist and twin. I had chest pain and cried on and off for the 9 hours of flight time. Guess I'll have to ask for a wheelchair to not be invisible the next time I fly out of Port of Spain.
Update: I left a voicemail for the special assistance department of American Airlines as soon as I was home. The airline contacted me later that day and were appalled by my story (Thank you Janet for listening to my story through my tears). They reminded me of the rights I already knew, letting me know that they should have let me board and sit down for the second security check. The representative informed me that a notice would be sent out to all staff about invisible illness, the general manager at Port of Spain would be informed of their teams’ treatment towards me, and action would be taken against the horrendous supervisor and staff who treated me with no compassion.