How I became a brew believer

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 13 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 13 September, 2011, 12:00am


It started like one of his many colds. DS (short for darling son), my almost-four-year-old boy, had a stuffy nose that also leaked like a broken tap.

Our medicine cabinet was already fully stocked with a kaleidoscope of coloured syrups that doctors claimed would unclog and dry up his nose. Most of the time, none of them really worked. We usually had to hunker down and wait for the cold virus to run its course in two weeks or so.

DS' colds often seemed to last longer than I imagined other children's did. He also seemed to catch them faster than you can say 'germy preschool'. His preschool teacher had the gall to complain that DS was not in school enough.

While the Tiger Mum in me toyed with the idea of pulling him out of preschool altogether, my laid-back husband, DH (darling husband), shrugged off each cold as another step on the long road to building childhood immunities.

However, this bout of what we thought was a regular cold turned out to be a protracted battle against an allergy flare that lasted nine months. But it also took us down a surprising path to recovering my son's health.

DS quickly developed a fever and greenish mucus, which prompted a trip to the paediatrician, who prescribed a week's course of antibiotics for a diagnosis of sinusitis. The fever went away, but the sniffles and stuffed nose did not.

A month later, the fever and coloured mucus returned. This time, the paediatrician ordered two weeks' worth of antibiotics. She said the double dose should ensure all the bacteria in his sinuses were good and dead. Worried that all the good bacteria in his gut would be, too, I asked for an accompanying prescription of probiotics.

The paediatrician also suspected that DS had allergies that were compounding the sinusitis, so she gave him allergy medicines such as Zyrtec and Singulair.

Again, while the fever subsided, there was little improvement to his other symptoms. Worse, he started waking up in the middle of the night to vomit copious amounts of clear or white phlegm. We had a little pail on standby next to his bed every night.

DS also snored - loudly. Even from the living room, I could hear him struggling with each breath. The nightly vomiting and battle for breath took a toll. DS had dark circles under his eyes and was often sleepy in the daytime. Even his daytime breathing was noisy, and he could only breathe through his mouth.

By now, DS' symptoms had lasted almost two months and he had burned through three bottles of antibiotics. Someone recommended that he see a paediatric allergist.

Despite having been told by several doctors in the past that allergy testing was a painfully expensive and pointless exercise, we were driven by desperation to give even the painfully expensive (it was) and pointless (to some extent) a try.

The allergist said DS' condition was too bad for him to be taken off the allergy medicines for a skin-prick test to be done. DS needed a blood test. One heartbreakingly slow and painful blood-drawing session later, we found out that DS was allergic to house dust mites.

He was given more allergy medication and steroidal nasal sprays. We even bought a rather expensive dust mite killing spray so I could carpet-bomb beds and sofas with it.

Over the next seven months, DS had to be given three more bottles of antibiotics (I heard another version of the 'good and dead' spiel), countless bottles of Zyrtec, sleeves upon sleeves of Singulair pills and many bottles of nasal sprays. While the mucus dried up and the night vomiting stopped, DS still couldn't breathe through his nose or sleep without snoring.

The allergist even suggested removing DS' adenoids and tonsils so he could breathe better. But DH and I baulked at the idea of putting our child through surgery. We wanted to exhaust all possible options before cutting anything out of him.

At about this time, I had finished writing an article for Health Post about traditional Chinese medicine. Although I had pooh-poohed the idea of TCM as a young adult, age (and my research for the article) prompted me to keep an open mind and give it a try. After all, allopathic medicine had given us discouraging results. I hoped TCM would be as safe, gentle, effective and free of side effects as its advocates said.

But DH and I also had our reservations about TCM - we'd read our share about scandals involving tainted, fake or plain dangerous Chinese herbs. Were we really going to gamble our child's health on a relatively uncontrolled industry?

We decided that we'd pay a little more and seek out a well-established TCM brand to have some assurance of quality and safety.

I took DS to a TCM clinic an hour's drive away that claimed to be child-friendly. The practitioner spoke only Putonghua and sent us away with barely two words and a week's worth of pulverised herbs to be mixed in water.

DS surprised me by chugging the earthy-smelling herbal brew with little complaint. I guess the heaping spoonful of honey I mixed in there helped. There was little change to his condition, however.

Unwilling to give up on TCM so soon, I tried another clinic close to my home. This TCM practitioner was much friendlier and said DS had a lot of 'hardened mucus' in his nasal cavity that needed to be drained. So she gave him another week's worth of pulverised herbs conveniently apportioned into little sachets. This time, the herbs did seem to have the intended effect. After three days, thin, watery mucus started to flow.

Unfortunately, the mucus soon turned green. DH's first reaction was we should head back to the paediatrician for antibiotics, but I resisted. Six bottles of antibiotics in six months was quite enough of an assault on my son. I took DS back to the TCM clinic.

This time, a different practitioner was on duty. A portly old man who spoke a good smattering of English, he inspected DS' nostrils, took his pulse on both wrists, inspected his tongue and proceeded to give me a 20-minute lecture on the foods to feed him and to avoid.

Basically, I had to give him a wide variety of food and avoid chicken, wheat noodles, fried foods, fast foods and other 'heaty' nosh for the time being. I groaned inwardly, because almost all of DS' favourite foods were on the banned list. Still, mealtime struggles were better than listening to DS snore strenuously.

The practitioner also gave DS a new combination of pulverised herbs to be taken three times a day.

Two days later, DS' greenish mucus turned clear. By the end of the week, all of his symptoms had disappeared. He no longer snored, sniffled or breathed through his mouth.

After nine fretful and sometimes heartbreaking months, my son was finally symptom-free. Some nights, I still stand outside his door marvelling at the sound of silence as he sleeps.

I know it sounds incredible. I would hardly have believed it myself if I hadn't witnessed DS' amazing recovery.

These days, when DS falls sick, I turn to TCM first, not last. I also pay extra care to the food that he eats, as I have come to accept that the qualities of food extend beyond their basic nutritional value.

I have certainly not ruled out allopathic medicine. But for mild ailments, I now rely on TCM's holistic and natural approach to support my son's health.