MONA CAIN IS AN ENERGETIC, voluble 44-year-old woman who holds down two full-time jobs, one as an office manager at a Dallas general contracting company and the other at home as a wife and a mother of two children. She does not strike you as the sort of person who would be carrying around a hypo loaded with epinephrine—the hormone also known as adrenaline, which is commonly used to relieve respiratory distress—in her purse just in case the “big one” makes a surprise visit.
The “big one” in Cain’s case is not a heart attack. Cain is allergic to peanuts. She is also hypersensitive to an array of other substances: egg whites, sulfa drugs, and various pollens. But it is her allergic response to peanuts that has almost killed her a handful of times, a hyperresponsiveness so acute that merely touching the food can trigger some degree of anaphylactic shock—the rare multiple-organ allergic response to foods, drugs, or insect venoms that causes several hundred deaths in the U.S. each year.
Mona Cain’s first near-death experience happened when she was two. “We were living in this little town, Batesville, Mississippi,” she says. “My older brother, Fred, had this habit of eating peanut butter sandwiches before he went to bed. Well, he’d eaten some, and then he came to tuck me in and kiss me good-night. Apparently, not long