A search of my computer shows that I’ve written on the topic of diarrhea several times already. It’s a recurring theme every few years, usually after a news event.
The latest circumstance, as I write this, is an incident that occurred on a flight between Atlanta and Barcelona in early September 2023. Reportedly, a passenger had diarrhea that was concerning enough to be considered a biohazard. According to CNN and other sources, the flight turned around after a few hours and went back to Atlanta. (CNN)
Perpetuating Shame and Stigma
The plane had to be serviced and apparently carpeting had to be removed. Thankfully, the passenger wasn’t identified. To my knowledge, no one has stepped forward to identify the person who was ill. There have been some videos posted online of the inside of the plane. However, the reports other than what was in the statement from Delta remain unconfirmed.
In the IBD community, we are familiar with having embarrassing incidents. Many patients I interview have a pants pooping story. Some make it to publication and some don’t. Depending on the story, we might laugh about it together, and there’s a lot of value in taking back the narrative and owning the embarrassment.
Journalists Don’t Poop?
What bothered me about this incident on a flight, however, was the way it was covered by so many sources. Especially those that sell themselves as being progressive. I don’t expect much from the talking heads, but I do hold news outlets that claim to be allies to the chronic illness or rare disease community to a higher standard.
At the outset, I’ll say this: I’m not even sure that this is news. It was an unfortunate medical emergency which led to delays and I’m sure much frustration to everyone involved. But I don’t think it’s news. Yet, it was covered repeatedly by online news outlets, TV, and even on podcasts.
I’m a huge podcast fan. I listen to hours of shows every day to get my news, information, and to be entertained. The way the news podcasts handled this story made me furious. It was a joke. It was a laughing matter.
I wondered: do none of these journalists poop? Have they never had a bout of diarrhea? Have they never been that sick in their lives? How nice for them, if that were true.
Diarrhea Is a Serious Public Health Issue
But I know that it’s not. Even regular people have diarrhea a few times a year. Diarrhea is such a problem in some parts of the world that it kills. Usually children. In 2016, it killed 1.6 million people and was the 8th leading cause of death among all ages and 5th leading cause of death among children. (GBD 2016 Diarrhoeal Disease Collaborators)
So not only do I think that someone having diarrhea isn’t news, I also don’t see how it’s funny. It’s an unfortunate event, and if the person were identified or filmed without their consent, it could ruin their life. I can imagine how bad the attention could be for them.
In an older blog I wrote about diarrhea, I referenced a story in 2011 about an ulcerative colitis patient who was treating his disease with helminths (worms). The news station proceeded the story with the diarrhea scene from the movie “Dumb and Dumber.” A movie that I already found deeply unfunny, and now it was being used to poke fun at ulcerative colitis.
However, I’m not entirely humorless about it. In another blog I wrote about the movie “Bridesmaids.” The diarrhea scene in that movie I did find funny. Maybe because I have been a bridesmaid with diarrhea and I identified with trying to get a dress off while sick. Reportedly, some people walked out of the movie because of that scene.
We Can Be Kind
To me, I think the difference is the way the situation is treated. When I ask people to share their embarrassing IBD stories, we laugh about it together. We take back some of the shame and the stigma that were felt in those moments. We hopefully work through the feelings together, exposing them to the light, not only removing their ability to cause further hurt, but also showing others that they are not the only ones to experience these types of incidents.
It’s also completely voluntary.
The person who had a medical emergency on a plane wasn’t given the option to keep the incident to themselves. It became news. It became a way for people to make a joke and feel superior. It was a way for them to other a human being who was experiencing something horrible.
If a news outlet decides to report a story where someone has a medical emergency: it shouldn’t be a punchline. It shouldn’t be the throwaway story at the end of the podcast episode, where the hosts laugh and speculate on how the plane needed to be cleaned.
Being sick happens to every single one of us. And diarrhea not only leads to lower quality of life (that is to say: being absolutely miserable), but it can be serious and it is frequently deadly.
It’s another example of how bodily functions — which are the one thing we all have in common! — are a source of stigma. How many people have to get really sick with IBD or colon cancer or other digestive conditions because of shame around bowel movements?
I don’t think it’s difficult to find kindness. We can do it. For sure it can be uncomfortable at times, but doing the right thing is rarely a comfortable experience. And in the meantime, in the IBD community, we will continue to work to help people feel less alone, and to know that they deserve to be treated with respect.
Editor’s Note: The older blog posts referenced are no longer available online.
O’Hare M and Williams D. Delta flight forced to turn around because of diarrhea incident. Updated September 6, 2023. Accessed September 18, 2023. Available at: https://www.cnn.com/travel/delta-flight-diarrhea-biohazard/index.html
GBD 2016 Diarrhoeal Disease Collaborators. Estimates of the global, regional, and national morbidity, mortality, and aetiologies of diarrhoea in 195 countries: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2016. Lancet Infect Dis. 2018;18:1211-1228. doi: 10.1016/S1473-3099(18)30362-1.
Kosek M, Bern C, Guerrant RL. The global burden of diarrhoeal disease, as estimated from studies published between 1992 and 2000. Bull World Health Organ. 2003;81:197–204.