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.
“It was a pretty big shock,” said McCathern, soon to be 56, who lives near Harrisburg, Pa. Knowing earlier what was wrong, she added, “might have made a difference with what I did with my life.”
Coughing up ‘black stuff’
After her first allergist prescribed allergy shots, which didn’t help much, McCathern assumed that her intermittent respiratory problems were something she just had to get used to.
In 1982, McCathern was deployed to Ankara, Turkey, where her health worsened. That was not surprising, since Turkey burned coal as a fuel source and many people were affected by air pollution. “In the winter, you’d cough up this black stuff,” she recalled.
Doctors prescribed prednisone, a corticosteroid that reduces inflammation; it seemed to help. She continued to get allergy shots.
In 1983, when she left Turkey for a Royal Air Force base near Cambridge, England, her health improved. Doctors there decided her problem was mostly seasonal allergies — pollen again — but she remembers that “it wasn’t something I had to worry about every day.” The good days outnumbered the bad in England and at her next assignment in Southern California.
By the mid-’90s, when she was deployed to Cheyenne, Wyo., her asthma had worsened significantly. “Doctors told me I had to get rid of my cat or I wouldn’t be able to walk up the stairs when I was 40,” she recalled. Her allergist rebuffed her request for a methacholine challenge, a test used to help manage hard-to-control asthma or to rule out an asthma diagnosis. McCathern said the allergist told her the test was unnecessary because her diagnosis was not in doubt.
Because parting with her cat now seemed a necessity, McCathern sadly gave her to her sister. Even so, her condition did not improve.
From 1995 to 2002, McCathern lived in suburban Maryland and was attached to the presidential support unit at Andrews Air Force Base. Although catless, she suffered more-frequent and more-severe respiratory infections, and her allergist seemed at a loss. Too sick to take another overseas assignment — the Air Force wanted to send her back to Turkey — she retired on medical grounds after 25 years of service. It was a very difficult time, McCathern recalled, because she loved her job and wanted to continue working, but it was clear that her health had become too precarious.