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“You are going to be made to feel like a security threat” – Highland councillor speaks out on airport concerns for people with prostheses

By Federica Stefani

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Trish Robertson, story is about prosthetics setting off security scans and she is raising awareness on problems that this can cause to people that like herself. Picture: Callum Mackay.
Trish Robertson, story is about prosthetics setting off security scans and she is raising awareness on problems that this can cause to people that like herself. Picture: Callum Mackay.

A Highland councillor is raising awareness about the traumatic experience that new airport security protocols could cause to people wearing prosthetics.

Culloden and Ardersier councillor Trish Robertson said that new, more sensitive scans being introduced in airports across the UK and Europe could potentially make people wearing prostheses feel “humiliated”.

This is because artificial body parts will almost always be picked up by the scans as anomalies, resulting in the person being searched by security staff.

Now, Cllr Robertson is calling for a change in protocols, as well as raising awareness on the potential impact this could have on the mental health of many people.

“You are going to be made to feel like a security threat specifically because you have had an operation,” she said.

Cllr Robertson, who had a mastectomy in 2022 and now uses a prosthesis, said her concerns started after learning of an incident at Dublin Airport in April, which saw a woman being asked to remove her artificial breast by security staff while she was standing in the security line.

“I had noticed that I had been searched the last couple of times I had been through the local airport, and that the anomaly that appeared was in the region where I had been operated on,” she explained.

“It was very upsetting, but back then, it didn’t cross my mind that it was a huge problem.”

Then she read the news about the search at Dublin Airport. After this, she started looking into why that was happening, as well as ways people with genuine prostheses could avoid being searched.

Liaising with Inverness Airport, she was able to organise a test run during which she could try on different types of prostheses, to see if any could pass the security scans without resulting in a search.

“The staff at the airport were absolutely amazing, they couldn’t have done more to help me through it and made me feel much more reassured ahead of my future flights,” she said.

“I tried going through security with different types of prostheses. All of them set off the scan apart from the post-operative one which didn’t set the scanner off at all.

“I believe it was also helpful for staff at the airport, to better understand the issue and why they could get a certain reaction from people who get searched.”

What seemed to work in Inverness was placing the prostheses in the hand luggage (therefore avoiding setting off the body scans).

However, her most recent flight experience proved that even this option might not work.

Flying to Dublin from Aberdeen Airport, she had packed her prosthesis in a cloth bag placed inside her hand luggage.

“I walked through the scanner with no problem at all, and it felt good,” she said.

“However, the hand luggage came up as suspect. The security guard came over and said something was showing up as a food item. I explained what it was. This did not suffice and the case was opened. I explained again what it was, but despite that the cloth bag was opened and examined. The bag was swabbed and I was allowed to take the case and carry on.

“More than anything, I felt angry this time as this had worked previously.”

Returning from Dublin, she decided to wear the prosthesis.

“I intended to be in control this time,” she said.

“I was wearing a cardigan and asked if I should put it in the tray. When they said yes, I whipped out the prosthesis and popped it on top of the tray. The guard looked surprised and quickly sent the tray on its way. No more questions were asked.

“I wonder, is this what I am going to have to do every time? It puts you in a humiliating situation, and this is not something everyone would be comfortable doing. You also need to prepare yourself beforehand.

“But until something changes or there is a resolution, this is what I will do.”

Cllr Robertson, who often travels overseas for her role as president of environmental organisation KIMO International, said that having to be singled out for searches every time can have a hugely negative impact on the mental health of someone who has gone through a traumatic event.

She said: “It’s not so much about other people knowing that you have it - it’s you and your mental health that it affects, that’s the difficulty.

“On a normal day, you get up, you dress up and you can forget about it for the day, until you have to undress again before going to bed.

“But now this - it’s telling you you are being searched because you have this oddity on your person. That’s what makes it difficult.

“This is something that you are personally dealing with, you are trying to go back to normal. You are trying to convince yourself you haven’t changed. But this is saying ‘no, you are not normal’, it makes you feel like a freak.”

At the moment, airport policy requires officers to search anyone who sets off the scanners.

Trish Robertson, story is about prosthetics setting off security scans and she is raising awareness on problems that this can cause to people that like herself. Picture: Callum Mackay.
Trish Robertson, story is about prosthetics setting off security scans and she is raising awareness on problems that this can cause to people that like herself. Picture: Callum Mackay.

Cllr Robertson was told that even if she took a doctor’s signed paperwork certifying the person was wearing genuine prosthetics, she would still have to be searched.

“There is no way around it. The protocol needs to be changed, ” she said.

“It seems to me that they are discriminating against people who have had a problem that has been dealt with surgically.

“I just wonder what can be done to make life easier for people with this problem instead of being humiliated every time.

“This needs to be out there, people need to know that, 99 per cent of the time, they will be searched.”

According to data shared by research and support charity Breast Cancer Now, this is the most common cancer in the UK with one woman diagnosed every 10 minutes. In Scotland, every year around 4800 people are diagnosed with breast cancer.

Louise Grimsdell, senior clinical nurse specialist at Breast Cancer Now, said:

“It’s so important that people wearing a prosthesis after breast surgery are given information and support about what to expect during airport security ahead of their travel as most prostheses will show up on a body scanner and may result in a further check, and we know that this can be a worry for people.

“Ahead of travel people can check an airport’s security procedure, and before being scanned they can tell security staff if they are wearing a breast prosthesis. Their GP or treatment team can also provide a letter to take when travelling to confirm this.

“Anyone with questions about travelling with a breast prosthesis can speak to our expert nurses on our free, confidential helpline at 0808 800 6000.”

Joanna Ewing, an Inverness breast cancer survivor who took part in the charity event Catwalk For a Cause earlier this year and who also had a mastectomy, said Cllr Robertson’s worries resonate with her experience.

Joanna Ewing at Catwalk for a cause. Picture: Callum Mackay.
Joanna Ewing at Catwalk for a cause. Picture: Callum Mackay.

She said: "I don't wear prostheses anymore but I remember going to Poland for Easter last year when I was still using them, and I had to fly from Inverness to London and London to Krakow, so I had to go through the security control twice.

“I remember being anxious, standing in line with my husband and two of my daughters and I remember as we were approaching the checkpoint thinking: ‘what is going to happen if I set the alarm off? They’ll want to search me and of course, they will see the prosthesis is different. Will they pick on that, will I have to explain?'

“I was worried at the possibility of having to tell a stranger, I felt uncomfortable at having to share too much information which I didn’t want to share.

“Thankfully I wasn’t searched that time but because of the stress, on the way back I decided not to wear the prostheses at all. I had managed twice, but the anxiety and stress of waiting in line was enough for me not to do it on the way back.”

“You don’t want to be sharing such intimate information with a stranger.

“Thinking of how the person was treated in Dublin - this is so awful. We have been through cancer treatment, losing our breasts, then wearing a prosthesis…and it is not like you are straight off cancer-free. It takes time. Even two years after being diagnosed, sometimes I still look at myself, asking: ‘is that really me?'

"It's about accepting that your body now looks different, and it’s never going to be the same. To be asked those questions at the security checks is hard. And the fact that someone has been treated like that woman in Dublin, it’s appalling.

“I used to travel back and forth a lot in the past, and if I had to do it now it would certainly cause a lot of anxiety and worry for me.”

She said that kindness from strangers is really key - and airport security staff should be trained to treat people in a kind and compassionate way to deal with sensible situations, and there should be more information shared about the rights of passengers, or a way in which someone can share the information with staff before going through controls to be allowed more privacy from the crowd at the security checks line.

“I would still feel uncomfortable if I had to say it out loud in such a crowded space, even if no one around me cares!”

The UK Civil Aviation Authority website states that internal and external devices that are partly or completely made of metal are likely to be detected by walk-through metal detectors or security scanners.

Other external devices, such as external breast prostheses, insulin pumps and stomas, may also be detected by security scanners.

Security staff may carry out an additional hand-search, which can be carried out in a private room by a security staff member of the same sex as the person being searched. A friend or family member can be in the room while the search is carried out.

It continues: “It is helpful to carry a letter from your doctor confirming that you have been fitted with a medical device or prosthesis, and whether this is fitted internally or is an external device. This should be shown to the security staff, if possible before you go through screening.”

The Department of Transport has been contacted but declined to comment due to the pre-election period.

Breast Cancer Now, a UK charity supporting people suffering from breast cancer and their families, says on its website about searches: “You may be worried about what this means for your privacy and feel anxious at the idea of someone noticing your prosthesis.

“If selected for a scan you might want to tell the security staff that you are wearing a breast prosthesis before being scanned. It may also be helpful for you to carry a letter from your GP or treatment team, confirming this.

“The images (from the scan) are viewed remotely and cannot be seen by the public. You can ask for a female screener (the security officer analysing the images).

“The screener won’t see you or be able to recognise you. The images don’t show facial features, hair or skin tone, and are deleted immediately after analysis.”

Inverness airport general manager Graeme Bell said: “Full body scanners are being introduced as part of ongoing upgrades to enhance the security experience for passengers at our airports as part of the new regulations which came into effect at the start of June.

“Our security procedures are a necessary requirement to ensure the safety of all passengers. However, we understand that security searches can be an intrusive element of travel for our passengers and our aim is to implement these sensitively.

“Our staff are trained to make searches discreetly and the option of a private search and a security operative of a different gender to conduct the search is available for passengers.

“We will be updating the security information on our website to provide guidance for passengers.”

An NHS Highland spokesperson said that for people undergoing a mastectomy, information is sent out regarding prosthesis in advance of surgery and patients are invited to have an appointment with the breast care nurses to discuss what is involved with prosthesis.

They said: “In regards to airport security, this is a new situation because of the change of scanner.

“The breast care nurses are consequently informing patients about the increased sensitivity of airport scanners and we intend to highlight the issue with the prosthesis manufacturer. Letters confirming the necessity and authenticity of a prothesis can be issued on request.

“There is ongoing psychological support available to people from diagnosis onwards via the breast care nurses and third sector organisations, in particular Maggie’s Highland.”

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