Everyone has fears, phobias, and things that make them want to soil themselves, whether inexplicably innate or acquired over time. And as the time draws nearer for my trip back to Ohio, just the thought of flying again frightens me and shakes me up a great deal inside. It is not because I have a fear of heights or of crashing, nor does it have anything to do with a farfetched threat of terrorism, nor is it because I will be traveling internationally with a baby (though that is not exactly a comforting thought, either). Frankly speaking, I never felt so apprehensive and uneasy about flying. That was, until… the last time.
The last time. When what seemed like an innocent trip from Argentina got me pulled out of passport control going back into my own country, put in a holding cell, then taken into isolation, quarantined, and questioned before being deemed not to be a threat to the United States (and its associated territories).
But I am getting a bit ahead of myself with the story, giving away the juiciest parts first (and out of order). Let me give a bit of background first…
It was December 2012 and I was approximately 24 weeks pregnant. The pregnancy thus far had been sheer Hell. Textbook perfect in terms of fetal growth and milestones, but total Hell in terms of morning sickness and vomiting, dizziness, mood swings, and peeing myself (admittingly many times over). Not to mention a wicked case of acid reflux. Perhaps it was due to the chronic pregnancy vomiting, perhaps also due to additional factors, such as my susceptibility to an irritable throat because of the 7+ years of bulimia from my teens and early twenties. Who knows? The point is, I had a horrible, hacking, but non-contagious cough that had been leading to a lot of unwanted attention and stares. Strangers on the bus or on the street would offer me a cough drop that they had handy, or unsolicited advice (“Drink lemon with hot water and honey”), or a tissue. Others would move away from me, lest I have the bubonic plague. Yeah, the cough was that bad.
The day of my yearly international trip back to the US of A, I went to my local guardia (in English, the equivalent of a walk-in urgent care) in Buenos Aires to obtain a doctor’s note. “Just in case,” I told myself, “in the unlikely event that my cough causes concern. Not that it will.” I was in and out right away. After listening to my cough and examining me, the doctor wrote me a hand-written note on a prescription pad of paper in Spanish stating that my cough, though attention-calling, was due to acid reflux and NOT contagious. That was enough to satisfy me.
The first leg of the Delta Airlines flight seemed to go well enough. I did my best to control my cough as much as I could, and was even able to catch a bit of sleep. After 10+ hours, we arrived (early, in fact) at the international terminal of the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta airport. As I queued in passport control, I felt the itchy, tickly, irritating feeling of my cough acting up again. I simply couldn’t help it. Covering my mouth with my hand, I coughed for a few seconds. And then I did it again. And maybe once more. By the time I arrived to the desk, the man at immigration control, holding my US passport in his hand, asked me, “Was that you coughing back there?”
“Yes,” I answered. “But it’s okay, it’s just acid reflux. I’ve got a doctor’s note.”
Before I could fish the paper out of my backpack, I was approached by an airport security employee in a dark blue uniform. “Come with me,” he said sternly, not elaborating further.
What else could I do? Make a run for it? Not likely (they still had my precious blue passport, anyway). I followed the man. I followed him through the end of immigration control. I followed him through baggage claim. I followed him through a long, white corridor, with uninviting florescent lights and no signs or doors until he finally brought me to an isolated area in the airport. There was a large desk with a man and two large, formidable-looking women sitting behind it. The man who had led me down the corridor spoke with them, though I could not decipher a word, and then left. He had given them my passport, my boarding pass, and the doctor’s note.
“Are you sick?” one of the women asked me in an accusing tone.
“No, no, you see, it’s nothing, I just have aci…”
“Where were you coming from?” she interrupted, impatient with my explanation.
“Buenos Aires, Argentina.”
“Is it true that you were coughing up blood on the plane?”
What the effing what?!?!?
“Do you have tuberculosis?”
Before long, despite my attempts to explain, I found myself in a giant glass holding cell, like the mother of all aquariums. The door clicked behind me. All I had was my backpack, but none of my documents. I found an unoccupied, uncomfortable chair. I looked to my left and to my right. Sketchy looking people surrounded me. People in African attire, people who appeared to be migrant workers, intimidating-looking people who could fit the “terrorist” stereotype, people speaking every language except English. And me.
“Look at the floor. Look at the floor. Look at the floor. Look at the floor,” I repeated to myself. I couldn’t permit myself to think or let my emotions get the best of me. All I could do was to focus on the floor beneath my feet.
Before long, I heard a voice. “Elizabeth,” an airport security employee stood by the door, addressing me by my middle name. “Come here.”
I grabbed my backpack, with right good hope that this little hiccup was all resolved and taken care of. “Thank GOD!” I thought to myself. “Maybe I’ll even be able to make it to my connecting flight in time.”
No such luck. Evidently I was deemed to be a threat to all those people and their health and wellbeing in the holding cell and needed to be isolated for their protection.
I was brought to another white room, with a single desk, a chair on either side, and a conspicuous black video camera perched in the corner, making its presence known.
On the wall behind me was a white dry-erase board with a chart with what appeared to be the data of people who had been brought into this room prior to me, including their last names and countries of origin.
Look at the floor. Look at the floor. Look at the floor.
I was ready to have a complete breakdown and burst into sobs. But I knew that I had to contain and control myself, I just had to. What the hell was going on? What if they didn’t let me go to Cincinnati? What if they sent me back to Argentina? What if they put me on the no-fly list? What if…?
Endless minutes passed. After the two CDC representatives eventually arrived with their oversized medical bag to inspect me, I asked to use the phone to call my mother, who was supposed to be picking me up in Cincinnati.
You can just imagine how that 30 second conversation went.
“Hi, Mom. Don’t worry, but I’m with the CDC in a special room in the Atlanta Airport. I won’t be arriving on my original flight, so don’t drive out to the CVG airport yet, because there is a *bit* of a misunderstanding about my cough. Funny story, really. Anyways, love you… Don’t worry!”
After passing inspection (long story), I was finally deemed fit by the US Center of Disease Control to be released. Not a threat after all (whew!). No reason had ever been given to me as to where (or from whom) they got the idea that I had been coughing up blood on the plane. But I didn’t ask questions, I took my opportunity and ran with it.
I finally got onto the final plane bound for Ohio. I wanted to cry. More than cry. I wanted to have a profound sob. I was shaken. I was still freaked out. I was petrified of making a peep.
Look at the floor, look at the floor, look at the floor.
It wasn’t until many days later, when I felt that the storm had passed that I was able to finally have a good cry and let it all out. Incidentally, I had also received an automated email from Delta imploring me to let them know “How did we do?” Never received a response.
I know that I have to let go and acknowledge that it was a shitty, scary experience, but now that I no longer suffer from the damning cough that flying should be a non-issue for me. But it’s still hard to forgive (whom exactly, I’m not sure), forget (though unlikely), and let it go (still not ready).
Not entirely sure how to end this entry, so I suppose I’ll just leave it at that.