An estimated 50 million people in the U.S. have at least one type of allergy, ranging from annoying inconveniences (like seasonal pollen) to things that require some moderate degree of care to avoid (like penicillin) to the potentially life-threatening dangers that require constant vigilance (like a serious allergy to peanut products).
In a small handful of cases, though, the allergy — or allergies, plural — are so severe as to disrupt normal life. And in a very, very small number, they force the sufferer to withdraw from the world almost entirely.
Such is the case with Johanna Watkins, a Minnesota woman who is allergic to nearly everything — and, perhaps more notably, everyone — that she encounters. As reporter Peter Holley recently wrote in the Washington Post, Watkins has such extreme reactions that she’s confined to a sealed room, where she’s shielded from natural light (UV rays can trigger symptoms), eats the same two meals every day (made from some combination of the 15 ingredients she can tolerate), and can only accept the few visitors whose scents don’t set her off — a list that doesn’t include her husband, Scott Watkins.
The problem: Watkins had always had allergies, but over the past few years, things quickly snowballed from normal to extreme, as her list of allergens grew to several hundred, including “foods, scents, toothpaste, chemicals, environmental triggers and body odors produced by most people,” Holley wrote. “Anyone who encounters Watkins is required to use a special scent-free soap and make sure to avoid garlic, onions and pepper in their diet.” Currently, her two sisters, who act as her caretakers, seem to be the only ones who don’t present a threat to Watkins’s system; for Scott and everyone else, though, something as small as a hug would be enough to set her off.
The diagnosis: After seeing upwards of 30 doctors over a period of several years, Watkins was finally diagnosed in 2015 with a genetic condition called mast cell activation syndrome, in which the mast cells, a type of white blood cell involved in allergic reactions, go haywire. There is no cure.
In more mild cases, the symptoms can resemble a typical allergic reaction. In more severe forms like Watkins’s, mast cell activation syndrome can be deadly. So hypersensitive is Watkins’s body, in fact, that even someone opening the door to her bedroom can cause a reaction. “As soon as that door opens, I can feel it. My body goes into complete attack mode,” she said in an interview with local TV station KMSP. “It feels like my body is waging war on itself. My throat automatically tightens. It kind of feels like Darth Vader doing a choke hold.”
When Scott came into her room earlier this year, Watkins told People — only after he’d showered and changed clothes and donned a mask — his presence was enough to send her into full-on anaphylactic shock: “At that point, we figured out that I had become allergic to my husband.” Currently, the couple are raising money for a new house, built to fit their new needs: two connected apartments, one for him and one, with special air filters, for her.