To Jean McCathern, it seemed that the barrage of allergies — to pollen, mold, dust mites and cats — arose out of nowhere. In 1980 McCathern, then a 24-year-old Air Force staff sergeant assigned to the National Emergency Airborne Command Post at Offutt Air Force Base near Omaha, began gasping for breath as she carried equipment onto an aircraft.
Although McCathern had been in excellent physical condition, a doctor informed her a few weeks later that she had allergies and asthma, a diagnosis that remained unchanged for the next 24 years, even as her lung problems grew steadily worse.
McCathern’s infirmities would cost her the career as a cryptographic repairman that she loved, lead her to part with her beloved cat and force her to give up one of her passions — attending hockey games — because the risk of illness from exposure to crowds was too great. It wasn’t until 2004 that a simple blood test identified the malady that had plagued her for more than two decades — and it wasn’t asthma or allergies.