Extraordinary Encounters: United Airlines Flight Attendant
Living with bilateral (i.e. both arms) lymphedema, caused by breast cancer, requires daily maintenance and significant changes to my lifestyle. For more than four years, I traveled with two large suitcases that carried assorted pieces of my nighttime lymphedema pump. The gear was so tedious, requiring added effort for even an overnight trip, that I began to dread traveling. I wanted to be nimble and graceful but instead toted enough luggage to compete in a beauty pageant.
One suitcase carried the “brains” of the pump, a mechanism the size of a small ice chest which runs various combinations of programs, ranging from a brief 15-minute adjustment to the recommended one-hour program. The other suitcase contained the Velcro-enhanced shorts and chest/arm sleeve, both sporting six-foot tubes that connect to the brain. Although fascinating from an engineering standpoint, the system is a travel nightmare.
And then technology offered an unexpected solution. My lymphedema therapist recommended a new product that was similar to the nighttime pump but much more compact. Instead of filling up two suitcases, the Day Spring pump could be folded into a backpack. Immediately my thoughts turned to upcoming travel plans and how this invention could transform my ability to move about the planet, not to mention my attitude about leaving home. Fortunately, my insurance covered the cost of the ambulatory lymphedema pump, which arrived snugly situated in a case similar to that of a violin. Because it operated via lithium battery, I would need to carry it onto a plane. No one could have persuaded me to check it anyhow due to the risk of losing an expensive piece of medical equipment.
Only a few weeks after I received the new pump, I was scheduled to fly to MD Anderson in Houston for a check-up. Before leaving town, I printed off the prescription for the equipment, careful to tuck a copy in the pocket of the case. Concerned that airline personnel would argue about my carrying it into the cabin, I wanted to be fully prepared with official documentation.
While at the gate waiting to board, I anticipated receiving disagreeable comments from the flight attendants, rehearsing a dialogue in my mind. The pump constituted a third carry-on, something bound to get me in trouble, but I was ready with the rebuttals. “It is durable medical equipment,” I said in my imaginary conversation. “I have the paperwork right here.”
Proceeding down the aisle toward my seat, three carry-ons in hand, a flight attendant caught my eye. With the countenance of a seasoned professional, she had probably seen it all and heard a mountain of excuses to match. I braced for the argument.
Imagine the shock when instead she asked, “how long have you had lymphedema?” What? Did I hear that right? Despite wearing compression garments on both hands and arms, most people have no clue that the binding is due to lymphedema. I certainly didn’t expect that an attractive blonde woman wearing an official airline uniform would understand.
“How did you know?” I asked her.
“I have it too,” she said.
I nearly cried with relief. Instantly, I understood that she was a fellow breast cancer survivor. Our eyes met in an unspoken understanding of a common experience of disease. We chatted for a few minutes about how much time had elapsed since our respective diagnoses; about 12 years for her, while I was five years out from my first diagnosis and a year from the second. Not only would there be no argument about the equipment and no need to produce my prescription, but we were survivor sisters who both struggled with lymphedema! What are the chances, I marveled.
During the flight, she stayed busy with her duties and I didn’t think much more about our brief interaction. Soon we were on the ground in Houston where I exited the plane, merging into a sea of travelers at Bush International Airport. I heard a voice behind me, “Ma’am!”
When I turned, I saw my survivor sister/flight attendant running to catch up with me. “Are you here for treatment?” she asked. I told her about my appointments at MD Anderson scheduled for the following morning and that I’d been traveling to Houston to receive cancer care for more than five years. She had done her cancer treatment in New Jersey and didn’t like flying with her pump, finding it too bulky. She left it at home and resigned herself to struggles with lymphedema. Because flying is widely believed to exacerbate lymphedema, all of us with this difficult diagnosis are urged to use caution with jet travel. I unzipped the case and showed her my new equipment. Perhaps it would work for someone who traveled for a living?
Our serendipitous meeting took place in late October, a month during which many people sport pink gear for Breast Cancer Awareness. With everything saturated in pink, I didn’t register the pin on her lapel until she reached up and removed it. Pressing it into my hand, she said, “take this and good luck to you.”
We hugged briefly and she disappeared into the crowd.
Walking toward the airport exit, I opened my hand to examine the pin more closely. It was a pink ribbon alright; one anchored to a butterfly. I gasped.
Only two weeks before, I had launched this blog about my experience with two diagnoses of Inflammatory Breast Cancer. The logo I had just debuted consisted of a pink ribbon and butterfly.
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Pin gifted to me by a remarkable and lovely United Airlines flight attendant