Eczema, asthma, food intolerances and more – they are no one’s fault, says this mother of four, who has seen it all. “We had inconveniences, but not a handicap.”

Synnetta Ho believes there are lessons to be learned and silver linings in any “adverse” situation. She has raised four children, aged 15 to 22 years – all of whom have some level of food intolerance. But it’s her third son, David, now 20 years old, whom she says “broadened my experiences”.

“He’s anaphylactic,” says the 52-year-old project manager, simply.

When Life Throws a Curved Ball

Since a baby, David was allergic to the typical foods such as dairy, soy, wheat, eggs, nuts, seafood, and more, says Synnetta. However, his allergies didn’t stop at foods – they included dust mites, mould and perfume! “Every time I’d walked into a department store [with him] and whenever we entered a Chinese restaurant where there might be ‘wok’ aroma, he’d turn beet red,” she shares.

As David got older, his parents discovered that he was allergic to every type of meat except rabbit and turkey. “This created new challenges… to stock up on turkey throughout the year,” quips Synnetta. Living in the United States was easier as turkey meat was more readily available, she shares. “When we arrived in Singapore in 2000 from Chicago, the first thing we bought was a freezer to store turkey meat, which is only available seasonally [here].”

But David’s allergic reactions didn’t end there. Synnetta recalls a dinner out when she’d eaten pasta with cream sauce and nursed David thereafter. “He was screaming… his legs kept crutching upwards toward his stomach, for hours. That was when I’d discovered that whatever I ate, he’d ‘eat’ too!” For months thereafter, Synnetta was on a diet of plain rice, salted chicken and stir-fried vegetables with only salt (no soy sauce). “It was the only way in which he did not have eczema that resulted in him scratching and waking up throughout the night.”

Growing up on a diet of mainly rice-based bread, waffles, and crackers as snacks, David was six years old when he had his first cake, says Synnetta, who eventually learned to bake cakes without dairy, eggs and wheat.

Getting David into school and social activities presented other challenges. He was almost not admitted into any school – the family went as far as moving right next door to the school so that David could have his lunch brought to him daily by their domestic helper. And on explaining David’s situation to others (for e.g. food restrictions at social gatherings), “Instead of soliciting the help I needed, I’d overwhelm them [instead]. He was almost viewed as a kid who should be in a bubble,” says Synnetta.

A Matter of Perspective

A simple misunderstanding of instructions from a doctor – David vomited after being fed goat’s milk and had convulsions before he passed out in her arms – was a turning point for her, shares Synnetta. “It was then that I realised the enormity of dealing with food allergies. I can still remember sitting on the bed with him, passed out in my arms, and me crying uncontrollably and vowing to be ‘good’ – as if I could have been a better mother, it wouldn’t have happened.”

Synnetta became a stay-at-home mum and her children’s primary caretaker. “I was not going to trust anyone else to understand nor be as vigilant as I would be. He’s my child.”

And all her other children benefitted from her decision too, she says. It turned out that they didn’t display any obvious signs of food sensitivity until they were older. Her eldest son, Matthew is allergic to shellfish; second son, Mitchell, has asthma and eczema (from dairy food); daughter, Danielle, has eczema.

Her children have learned to empathise and support each other. “They learned by watching David. They know what to do whenever they sense any adverse reaction to food.”

The Power of a Positive Mindset

“If there is anything I have to offer, it is my honesty with them. I never made David feel like he had a handicap… we had inconveniences, but not a handicap,” says Synetta.

“Also, I’ve never apologised for the children that God gave me. He gave me perfect children. It was up to me to guide them to live life fully. Once, David asked me, ‘Mom, why did God make me this way?’ My answer was, ‘God is making sure we all eat healthy. Because you’ve come into our lives, we are all better for it!’”

David has just completed his first year of university in the US. Fortunately, universities have gotten quite smart in handling allergies, she says. “It takes away the stigma of being different as well.”

Live Well – Tips for Managing Life with Allergies

  1. Never apologise for your child’s anaphylaxis. Just teach your child to manage life effectively and productively.
  2. Do not depend on others to be careful for your child’s anaphylaxis. Take control of the environment and teach your child to do the same. For e.g. if we trying out a new place, it would be in an area where we know a hospital is reachable.
  3. Never depend on others to provide food that’s supposed to be “allergy” safe. Bring your child’s favourite dish; one that others can eat as well. It’s a great way to educate others on what allergy-free food tastes like.
  4. Never make your child feel isolated. We do not separate food into “David’s” and “others.” We all eat the same food.
  5. Acknowledge your child’s frustration of not being like others. Food allergy is not a handicap, it’s an inconvenience.
  6. Make your child’s treats extra special. David sometimes had fried chicken legs, and once, a steak for lunch – his classmates were envious! His older brothers were upset that they had to eat cafeteria food while David had freshly-cooked lunches, so we started packing for all three of them!
  7. Teach your children and their close friends about the usage of the Epi-pen, which is used to treat severe allergic reaction to insect stings or bites, foods, drugs and other allergens. Let them know there’s Benadryl (an antihistamine) on hand and that teachers / nurses are aware – it makes them feel secure.
  8. When eating out, keep food orders simple – for e.g. pan-fried meat seasoned with salt and pepper, plus white rice and vegetables. It does not overwhelm the chef. I have brought my own cooking oil to restaurants to avoid potential use of peanut oil.
  9. When travelling overseas, get the hotel staff to write, in their own language, all the elements to avoid. I put this list into David’s bag, which is packed with Benadryl and an Epi-pen, just in case he gets lost.
  10. Also, note the location of the nearest hospitals and be aware of the foreign country’s ability to address these issues.

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