Accidental bumps, tumbles and skin scrapes are part and parcel of growing up. For siblings Faith and James Loh (pictured), however, these minor childhood mishaps can potentially cause massive, uncontrolled bleeding.
Faith, seven, and James, six, suffer from haemophilia, a lifelong bleeding disorder that prevents their blood from clotting properly.
This means that wounds may take an abnormally long time to heal. Bleeding may also occur internally, into the joints or muscles.
“Once, Faith had a massive bump on her head that remained for six months. There wasn’t any blood flowing out, but the bleeding was still happening – inside.
Some people thought she was being abused,” shares their mother Anne, 44.
Anne is a carrier of the haemophilia gene and had unknowingly passed the condition to her children.
The condition is so rare that it affects just 300 to 350 people in Singapore, according to figures from the Haemophilia Society of Singapore (HSS).
Even more uncommon are girls like Faith, as haemophilia affects mostly males. Anne’s youngest child, Beth, three, does not have the disorder.
The stay-at-home mother discovered their condition only after James underwent a tooth extraction at the age of two, which caused him to bleed continuously for days.
“We didn’t suspect anything at first. The bleeding wasn’t obvious in the day, probably because James was swallowing a lot of blood throughout the day.
The bleeding continued while he was sleeping so when he woke up, there would be blood everywhere – on his face, the pillow, sheets and mattress,” says Anne.
By the fourth day, his face had literally “turned white” from the massive blood loss, she shares.
James was rushed to the Children’s Emergency at the hospital, where he was given a blood transfusion and had his empty tooth socket stitched up. Even then, blood continued oozing out from the stitches and his wound took months to heal.
Tests later showed that James was suffering from a severe form of haemophilia. This means that he has less than 1 per cent of normal clotting factors (proteins in blood that control bleeding) in his blood.
In this group of haemophiliacs, bleeding episodes tend to occur frequently and spontaneously even when they do not sustain an injury.
The bad news did not end there. Although it is uncommon for girls to get haemophilia, Faith was not spared.
“I was in total shock and could not believe it. I had not expected Faith to get it too, because girls are usually carriers of the gene.
At the time, I was eight months’ pregnant with my third child. I remember crying nonstop and being terribly fearful of the unknown,” says Anne.
Overcoming her fears of needles
Despite her intense phobia of blood and needles, the brave mum learnt to wield a syringe so that Faith and James can be treated at home.
This involves injecting clotting factors that her kids lack, which spares them multiple trips to the hospital.
It took her a year to pluck up the courage to administer their treatments herself. In the beginning, the kids had to endure many inaccurate and painful pokes, sometimes up to nine tries and over two hours for a single shot.
“They’d scream and shout whenever I didn’t do it right. Faith would pray very hard for me to get her shot right the first time,” says Anne.
“To think I used to be the type of person who would feel faint at the sight of blood – I didn’t even dare to hold my babies during their vaccination shots.
“But I have to administer the infusions for them now because the injections are necessary and life-saving,” she adds.
Without proper early treatment, haemophiliacs will suffer long-term problems in adulthood. For instance, repeated bleeding episodes can damage the joints and lead to disability over time, says Melvin Tan, a member of the executive committee of the HSS.
Sometimes, serious complications such as internal bleeding in the brain, which can lead to death, may also occur.
Faith’s condition is classified as moderate, and she currently receives treatment on-demand when she experiences a bleed.
But with James’ severe condition, he has to undergo twice weekly infusions, known as prophylaxis, to prevent spontaneous bleeding.
So far, the treatments have given him a good quality of life and he is able to still enjoy a normal childhood, which his parents are grateful for.
The kids can still go to the playground or go scootering wearing protective gear, of course.
“We usually time these activities on the days James receives his infusions and let him play more vigorously,” she says.
Although Anne takes measures to protect them from injuries, such as childproofing the house with rubber mats and corner guards, she knows she cannot keep a watchful eye forever.
Being overprotective would not be good in the long run as they need to stay active to build strong muscles for good joint health, she explains.
James is home schooled, while Faith started Primary 1 this year; she enjoys attending school and making new friends.
“There is only so much we can do and worry about. I have to trust in my faith, and count my blessings that nothing serious happened to them before they were diagnosed.
“Looking back, I’m really thankful that I had a relatively stress-free time with James and Faith in their first few years before we found out they had haemophilia,” says Anne.
Next page: Can haemophilia be cured?