Pump problems at the airport – by Bekki Millar

bekki-150-150A few years ago I finally convinced my diabetes team that I would benefit from getting an insulin pump. Thankfully I was right and the pump has made a huge difference to my life. Recently though, it caused a huge amount of stress and embarrassment when passing through airport security.

The insulin pump has made a huge positive difference to my life but it doesn’t take away my Type 1 diabetes, which a doctor told me was “brittle diabetes” and so more difficult to manage.
It is not an easy condition to live with and every day brings its own problems. The decision I made at the point of diagnosis, and stand by today, is though that I will live my life and not let it get the better of me, as much as is physically possible.

And one of the things I won’t let diabetes stop me doing is travelling. I love to travel and have friends across the UK I like to keep in touch with. Living in Northern Ireland, this tends to mean boarding a few aircraft and indeed passing through a few security checks.

For New Year 2016, I decided to spend it in Manchester with friends. I booked my flights to fly return from Belfast to Manchester. The flight out was seamless and the weekend even better. I got back to Manchester Airport for return flight having had a great weekend without giving too much consideration to my diabetes. Soon though I had been confronted with another challenge of living with diabetes, and not one I have experienced before.

At airport security, I explained that I had an insulin pump and that it could not go through any of the scanners, as it ran a high risk of causing a mechanical error which would break the pump. I was told by a manager that I had no choice. There was no way I was going to risk it though as I was aware it was my health at stake. Although the Walk Through Metal Detector itself should not cause any damage, the insulin pump is very likely to set off the alarm. This, as the airport admitted, would then require a Hand-Held Metal Detector scan, and the pump manufacturers advised this could cause damage.

No previous problems

I calmly explained these issues and pointed out that I had flown through Manchester countless times before whilst using a pump. On those occasions I had simply explained the issue, been frisked, had my pump swabbed and let go. Another manager was called in but told me the same thing. He didn’t believe the previous process I had been through would ever have happened.

Looking for a resolution I suggested I could ring the pump manufacturers and he could speak to them directly. I was advised this wouldn’t make any difference. It was suggested that I disconnect the pump and pass it through the security scanner. I explained though that this would mean the needle was exposed to an unsterile environment. Having read the pump instructions, I knew the manufacturers advised against this and so was again not keen to risk my health for sake of a security check.

Body search

As I explained this airport staff were sympathetic but still stated that there was no other option. Yet another manager was summoned, who was himself diabetic, and he admitted he was sympathetic. He stated though that there was only one other option if the scans were refused. A strip search and invasive body search. The men I was talking to, and they were exclusively men rather than women, convinced me to agree to this. I did not want to, however, and felt bullied and cajoled. I found the strip search really humiliating and degrading. I just made my flight but was badly shaken. I’ve contacted the airport to complain but I’ve yet to receive a proper apology.

All this made me wonder if other people living with diabetes and using an insulin pump have had this experience. I have used the pump for a few years and travel frequently but thankfully this was my first, and hopefully last, negative experience.

MP support

I want to make sure it doesn’t happen to anyone else though. My MP had written to relevant people on my behalf, for which I am grateful. I’ve received responses from the Airport CEO, who apologises but insists proper processes were followed. The Secretary of State for Transport also responded and suggested a private search should have been offered. This is important to me as the stress caused by the experience really affected me for a couple of weeks, as I struggled to work and felt it aggravated my diabetes further. It seems like policies, be they from the airport or the Government, need to be revisited and adjusted to ensure that this does not happen again. Or maybe staff just need to be more prepared for people using insulin pumps.

Whatever the answer, I don’t think the choice should be between risking my insulin pump, and so my health, or an invasive strip search.

More information

Bekki is supporting a petition calling for a standard policy for insulin pumps at airports (on the Change.org website).

For advice on travelling with insulin pumps, go to the travel page on the Diabetes UK website.

Read Helen May’s first experience of carrying an insulin pump at the airport.

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