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Killer Shoulder Bags

A personal story, and a health warning

Carotid artery

ABOVE: A man takes his pulse from the carotid artery, one of four major blood vessels that carry blood from the heart to the brain. INSET: The victim (me) holding a baby to gain your sympathy, and the type of shoulder pad that pressed against my neck's right vertebral artery.

Durant Imboden and Jackson PhillipsArticles about personal security for travelers often include this tip: "Wear the strap of your handbag or camera bag across your body, so it will be harder for crooks to snatch." That's great advice for theft prevention, but as I've learned through personal experience, it's a trick that could hurt or even kill you.

Here's my story:

In 2006, I walked down the gangway of a cruise ship in Rome's port of Civitavecchia with a heavy camera bag. The bag hung from a strap that ran diagonally across my body, with the strap's shoulder pad lying just below my neck on the shoulder opposite the bag.

By the time I reached the bottom of the gangway and the waiting bus, I felt wobbly and a little dizzy. My dizziness improved on the bus, but at the airport, I found myself staggering like a drunk. (And no, I hadn't had a shot of grappa in my morning coffee.)

Billingham shoulder padsI managed to zig and zag along the airport sidewalk to the First Aid clinic, where two paramedics rushed over with a wheelchair when they saw me bouncing off cars as I careened toward the building.

After checking my symptoms, the doctor on duty sent me to a nearby hospital by ambulance. There, I was subjected to CT scans, an MRI, and a battery of other tests before a neurologist told me that I'd had a stroke, which apparently had occurred when the strap of my heavy camera bag slid up from my shoulder to my neck, pressed against an artery, and reduced the flow of blood to my brain.

I felt better after three or four days, but I ended up spending 18 days in the hospital before the doctors allowed me to fly home. Today, eight years later, I still have less sensitivity to heat and cold in my left arm, my balance isn't what it once was, and I'm paranoid about letting any kind of strap or safety belt press against my neck.

My advice:

  • Don't let the strap of a heavy camera bag, computer bag, travel tote, or handbag press against your neck. Period. (Also be careful with badly-designed backpacks. One of my Italian neurologist's first questions was whether I'd been in a car accident with a shoulder belt or wearing a rucksack.)

  • If you're worried that draping your bag from a shoulder could make you a target for thieves, ask yourself which is the greater danger: Risking the loss of a bag, or risking brain damage--or even death.

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