Getting the Job Done Despite Son’s Life-Saving Emergency Surgery

Friday, May 31, 2024
Getting the Job Done Despite Son’s Life-Saving Emergency Surgery

TSA’s National Transportation Vetting Center (NTVC) was facing significant challenges.

The TVC’s Vetting Operations Section, which operates 24/7 to vet all airline passengers traveling on domestic and international flights, is a critical piece to TSA’s mission. When Amber Waldner-Ortiz stepped into her role in the VOS, she made strides in improving the section’s systems, resourcing, training and procedures.

Her progressive, people first leadership bolstered sagging morale, and she built a first-in-class staff responsible for, among other things, 1.5 million Secure Flight manual reviews and 631,000 manually reviewed credentials across 42 vetted programs.

VOS’ staggeringly high production rate and Waldner-Ortiz’s stellar accomplishments left very little empty space on her TSA Honorary Awards nomination form submitted by her supervisor.

While TSA is fortunate to have a leader of such quality and dedication, what is remarkable is Waldner-Ortiz accomplished her work while simultaneously caring for her son who required emergency, life-saving surgery.

The tenacity of her personal and professional courage, resolve and grit displayed throughout a year overflowing with unknowns earned her the 2023 Norman Y. Mineta “Cornerstone” Award for exemplary leadership despite adversity.

Waldner-Ortiz saw an opportunity to advance TSA’s mission when she accepted a detail at NTVC West in Colorado Springs.

“She faced roadblocks that she knocked down,” said Section Chief John Migas. “Amber jumped at the opportunity to provide the workforce chances to expand their horizons and responsibilities. That choice was faced with opposition, but it was ultimately the right decision. She earned the workforce’s trust, and in return, they had her back when her time came to step away.”

Stepping away for Waldner-Ortiz involved a high-risk surgery for her 18-year-old autistic son, who was diagnosed with malrotation, a rare congenital abnormality occurring in less than 1% of the population and usually diagnosed in infancy. After two surgeons declined to perform surgery, Waldner-Ortiz picks up the story in a Q&A with Strategic Communications and Public Affairs (SCPA).

SCPA: As you are comfortable, please explain your son’s medical diagnosis, surgery and recovery.

Section Chief Amber Waldner-Ortiz at the VOS in Colorado Springs (Photo by VOS)
Section Chief Amber Waldner-Ortiz at the VOS in Colorado Springs (Photo by VOS)

Waldner-Ortiz: The danger of the situation was not just the lifesaving surgery needed, but as an autistic person, he often would not disclose when he had pain or needed assistance, which highly complicated the matter.

I was on the cusp of taking him to the Cleveland Clinic when a Denver surgeon contacted me, wanting to see him. Dr. Kay admitted she had never performed the procedure on an adult but was confident she was able to do it.

Prayers and family support kept me from falling apart during this emotionally charged time. As I watched machines operate in place of his organs, there was great concern and sadness. But, as he began to meet milestones in advance of the timeline, it was overwhelmingly joyful. I knew he was strong, but it was at that time when I knew he was stronger than I could have ever dreamed of being.

The surgery was successful, and he left the hospital six days ahead of schedule when his organs began functioning without machine-driven assistance. Although he was still recovering, he was able to attend his high school graduation and cautiously walked across the stage as an academic honor graduate. To date he is doing well but has to go to the ER if he feels any discomfort in his abdomen.

SCPA: You’ve broken through glass ceilings and have successfully fulfilled job assignments traditionally dominated by males. Your dedication is unmatched, but given the news of your son’s illness, how did you operationally and emotionally balance your dual roles of a TSA professional and parent?

Waldner-Ortiz: As a former Federal Air Marshal/Law Enforcement Officer, the ability to separate operations and emotions became sort of an art. I own and acknowledge my responsibilities to both my family and my team members in my section. I hold them on a balance equally. I chose motherhood and the VOS Section Chief detail. I felt like I owed both 100%. I think the balance came by delegating and asking for help. I think communicating candidly and having an open dialogue in place prior to this incident was key.

The culture of care and community was already established. We were battle-tested as a team. There was a mutual understanding that I would always try to take care of any VOS team member and their family, and in turn, they took care of me and my family when I needed them the most.

SCPA: Knowing you had to step away from your professional duties given the enormity of your son’s health concerns, please explain how you backfilled during your absence while simultaneously researching the next steps for your son.

Waldner-Ortiz: My family comes first, but I also was dedicated and responsible to administering to eight supervisors and 62 other employees. They also had serious things they were experiencing, and my experience was no more or less important than anything they were encountering.

One of my supervisors, Patrick Arbuckle, was interested in the permanent Section Chief position, and I was already cross-training him. I was determined to get Patrick as ready as possible in such a short timeframe, and he did an outstanding job.

I brought my laptop to the hospital and certified timecards because no one else had database access, but his help permitted me to focus on my son and family without distraction.

SCPA: How did you prepare your staff to take the lead in keeping NTVC West operational?

Waldner-Ortiz: I communicated often and honestly with the cadre of supervisors who worked with me. There was full disclosure, and all were apprised on what was happening and what the projected plans would be. It was a culture of community and care. We showed up for each other to celebrate, support and comfort.

SCPA: How has this past year changed you?

Waldner-Ortiz: Let’s just say there are good and bad surprises. Here we were preparing for his high school graduation, senior prom and post-graduation party when suddenly everything we thought was important became miniscule. It really brought everything into perspective.

I think in the past, I may have been reluctant to ask for help and support. I feel like my family and I always supported and helped others, but when it came to us asking, it just wasn’t something we did. This time was different. We could not have made it through this without the love of God, family and our TSA families. The support and care we received was remarkable. It was pure and altruistic.

By Karen Robicheaux, TSA Strategic Communications & Public Affairs