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The Surprising Connection I Made With a Stranger After Getting Kicked Off a Plane

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12:15 p.m. is when I should have landed in Los Angeles and sprinted off a jet towards adventures under the California sun. Instead, I was sobbing at a coffee bar in the Phoenix airport, horrified that I was thrown off a plane for chronic ear infections. I could not get the jeering voices of airport personnel failing to hide their blatant ableism out of my head. All I expected from able-bodied people was seizure of my bodily autonomy to protect their hypersensitivities and irrationalities towards chronic illness. Both my hands were shaking, and it was all I could to do grab napkins for my face. To my left sat a woman with a straw-blonde bob and a fuchsia blouse, nervously sipping her drink before she asked me, “Are you nervous about flying?”

“No,” I replied, “I’m not nervous about flying at all. Usually, I love it, but I got thrown off my flight for being disabled. I’ve had chronic ear infections my whole life, and I’ve had 10 surgeries to try stopping them. Two of the surgeries were eardrum repairs, which were done with cartilage instead of skin to keep my eardrum from rupturing again. The cartilage had to be anchored to skull, and it can hurt horribly on landing — to the point where flight attendants have wanted to call ambulances. I tried to let them know they don’t need to do that ahead of time, but they freaked out when I told them and they threw me off the flight.”

To this day, I question why I opened up to an able-bodied stranger, but it turned out to be the best thing I could have done that day. With one simple question from the now-ashen woman, the entire day changed.

“Will my son’s ears hurt that much when he flies too?”


“My son just had another tympanoplasty six weeks ago. He’s had trouble with his ears throughout his life too, but he never lets me know what’s going on. I’m flying out to Baltimore to see him. I always want to help him, but he likes to try and manage everything by himself.”

“And you want to know if this pain is normal for people who have had tympanoplasties?”

She nodded.

“Typically, no. I only had the one tympanoplasty on the left ear, and it’s never had problems on planes before. The right ear only has problems because cartilage is less flexible than skin, and there’s bone pain from the graft too. You son shouldn’t have pain like this when he flies.”

“Thank you. I don’t understand why people have to be so scared of this. I’m sorry they threw you off your flight. That’s really not fair.”

Thousands of people pass through the Phoenix airport terminal each day, but I was lucky enough to meet the one person who had firsthand experience with chronic ear infections. Even if she was able-bodied, the woman had witnessed the bandages, the hospital rooms and the turbulence of tympanoplasties. Her son’s illness inadvertently allowed her to walk a mile in my shoes and give reassurance that some ableds were trustworthy.

Truly, I believe the only reason I had the strength to get on the plane to Los Angeles was because of my time with her. Though I cannot remember this woman’s name, the comfort she brought me and her smiling face will remain forever in my mind.

Getty image via encrier

Originally published: May 20, 2020
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