ST. PAUL, Minn. (KMSP) - In the near decade they’ve flown around the world together the Bergstrom family has never had problems with TSA -- Let alone over 9-year-old Chille’s pacemaker -- until Saturday morning at Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix.
“Usually, they are friendly, they smile, they give him a sticker, a TSA sticker,” Chille’s mother, Ali Bergstrom, of Wyoming, Minnesota, told FOX 9.
Chille was born with Golden Hars Syndrome. The syndrome in Chille’s case includes four heart defects. The condition has forced Chille to endure 15 open heart surgeries, and requires he live with a pacemaker.
Due to Chille’s disability and pacemaker, the Bergstroms are required to request alternative screening anytime they fly. Every time they fly the Bergstroms also make sure to show TSA documentation supporting the screening modifications Chille requires to stay alive.
Despite his struggles, the little boy aspires to become a pilot. Each time the Bergstroms travel they make sure to arrive early, says mom, “He likes to watch the planes take off and land, talk to all the pilots hanging around,” Ali Bergstrom said.
Yet, what the Bergstroms encountered at a TSA Checkpoint inside Sky Harbor Airport was what they call traumatic and discriminatory. Ali worries it even tarnishes Chille’s dream.
“With all the years that we’ve been flying this has never happened,” Ali said after they were denied their usual expedited screening process Saturday.
Alternative screening allows Chille to forego walking through metal detectors and instead go through a safe, two-minute screening.
“We were told immediately by the TSA that he was not allowed to be screened alternatively and instead would need an exemption,” said Ali.
An exemption the family never requested and held them up for more than an hour.
“[I was] shocked beyond belief. In walks the head of the Department of Homeland Security for the entire airport, followed by other supervisors, and managers with ten other people from TSA,” said Ali.
“And four police officers,” Chille chimed, completing his mother’s sentence.
“With everything, guns, Tasers, all that,” said Chille.
The exemption screening was lengthy and arduous according to the Bergstroms. The agents, they say, were also demeaning.
“One of the TSA agents told me they’d prevented terrorist attacks using nine-year-old boys with pacemakers and children before, so I laughed and said, ‘Oh when?’ At that point, the TSA agent became very quiet and said, ‘Oh we’re not at liberty to discuss this,’ ” recounted Ali.
Advocating for himself during the ordeal Chille asked, “Could you please explain to me what’s happening right now? Because I’m not used to this.”
“At that point the TSA agent said he wouldn’t be flying today,” Ali said.
The mother claims the manner by which her family was processed was dehumanizing.
“It was very scary,” said Chille, “I thought it was my fault.”
“Because he has been reared with this pacemaker I always tried to empower him,” the mother explained. “This was the first time I’d ever heard him talk like this,” she said.
“He woke up with nightmares on Saturday night and on Sunday night,” Ali told FOX 9 of how the debacle continues to affect her son.
In a statement to FOX 9, TSA Spokesman Nico Melendez wrote, “TSA is committed to ensuring all travelers are treated with respect and courtesy. TSA is reviewing Saturday’s incident and working to contact the family,” Melendez concluded.
“TSA has not contacted me. No one has apologized. No one has reached out,” said Ali.
“It was really terrible,” the nine-year-old affirmed. “The representative said ‘We will find you and apologize,’ and you know what they did? They did the exact opposite.”
Chille says being a “heart kid” is hard enough, and hopes sharing his troubling encounter with the TSA will prevent it from happening to anyone else again, let alone a child with a disability.
“Not just me, but any heart kid,” Chille said.
Chille will soon undergo his 16th, and hopefully his last, open heart surgery.