It Changed My Life: Told he could never walk again, Desmond Lim now helps others find their feet

During a motorcycle trip in 2013, Mr Desmond Lim was run over by a truck, leaving him paralysed below the right knee. He spent the next 18 months recovering at the Singapore General Hospital. Today, Mr Lim runs his own company supplying prosthetics.

In this four-part series brought to you by AXA, Insight features people who rewrite the rules. This week, meet Desmond Lim, who was told he could never walk again after a motorbike accident. Not only did he prove his doctors wrong, but he went on to start The Prosthetic Company.

It was a hot January afternoon in 2013. The sun was beating down on Desmond Lim as he sat astride his Kawasaki Versys 1000, waiting for the traffic light to turn green on a country road near Kanchanaburi, the Thai town famous for the Death Railway built during World War II.

The former flight attendant was heading back to Bangkok after a month-long motorbike sojourn which had taken him from Singapore to Thailand and places such as the Golden Triangle and the Thai-Laos border.

His two friends who had joined him for the trip were a couple of kilometres ahead of him.

A sudden impact from behind threw him to the ground. It was a truck driven by a man too engrossed with his phone to notice Mr Lim. The 43-year-old recalls: "I saw tyres, they went over me. I saw tyres again, turned on my side and got run over again."

His pelvis and right leg almost crushed, he lay groaning on the hot tarmac for more than six hours before an ambulance arrived.

The nightmare did not end there. For over a year, the hospital was his home because his injuries - fractured pelvis, broken right leg and organs which had shifted - were horrific.

Doctors told him he would never walk again, which threw him into a deep malaise.

But Mr Lim eventually walked again, thanks to his grit and the love and support of his family and several medical workers.

He walks with the help of a brace because his right leg - the lower part is paralysed - is now shorter than the left. "There is pain when I sit or stand but I have learnt how to manage it," he says.

He also defied the odds and rewrote the rules in other ways. With his employability limited, he got a loan from his sister and used his savings to start The Prosthetic Company three years ago.

The social enterprise specialises in prosthetics and orthotic equipment and services.

In three short years, the outfit has grown to become one of the largest of its kind here. Besides Singapore, The Prosthetic Company has expanded into Malaysia and set up a workshop and office in Johor.


Mr Desmond Lim in his workshop. He started The Prosthetic Company three years ago because he felt the variety of prosthetic and orthotic aids here was limited. Knowing what his clients need has helped the business as he understands how they feel and tries to give them what they want. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

From just two when he started, Mr Lim now employs eight staff including four certified prosthetists, one of whom is his wife.

Knowing what his clients need has helped the business, he says.

"I've been through it and I know what it is like. I understand how they feel, I listen and try my best to give them what they want."

The entrepreneur is the youngest of three children.

When he was three, his parents divorced and he and his siblings were sent to live with their father, who worked in design, and stepmother.

Without going into detail, he says it was not all hunky-dory.

"I was not allowed to see my mother. But she would come and meet me at my school once a week on her day off as a waitress," he says.

He and his two sisters moved back in with her after their father died, when Mr Lim was in his early teens.

Because of his family circumstances, he became independent and started earning his own keep at a young age.

One of his first gigs was peddling window cleaners at IMM when he was in Secondary One. By the time he was 15, he was working full time as a banquet staff in a hotel along Dunearn Road, pulling more than $1,500 a month including overtime.

"I'd go to school in the morning and work from 3pm until 11pm every day," he says, adding that the hotel provided him with a room.

"My school bag was filled with clothes, not books," says Mr Lim who left Holy Innocents High with only two O-level passes.

After national service, he completed a marketing diploma at a private college and sold cellphones, and then BMWs, for a couple of years. "In car sales, the guys can earn a lot in commission but they also spend a lot," he says.

 
 
 

His next stop was Cathay Pacific Airways, where he stayed for more than a decade.

Mr Lim - who was a purser serving business-and first-class passengers before his accident - enjoyed flying because it was relatively stress-free.

It also gave the motorbiking enthusiast - he used to own a Harley Davidson and a Kawasaki Versys 1000 - many opportunities to take long rides to Malaysia and the region.

The day his life changed is seared in his memory.

The accident attracted a crowd of people and caused a big traffic jam, one reason why the ambulance took six hours to reach the scene.

"It was a hot day. I was burnt because the ground was so hot. Some people sheltered me with umbrellas and poured water on the ground to cool it. I couldn't move my body, only my hands and my mouth," he says.

"I don't know how to describe the pain. I can only say I felt as though I was dying. I thought about whether I would die, what I had done and not done."

He was taken to a provincial hospital which looked like it had not been renovated since the 1960s.

"I was rolled into an operating theatre which had fans," he says, adding that none of the medical staff spoke English.

By then, his riding companions had come to know of his accident and informed his family in Singapore.

Because the hospital was not equipped to deal with his injuries, he had to endure another two-hour bumpy ride to a hospital in Bangkok where his mother and one of his sisters were already waiting anxiously.

"I'd been conscious throughout, my eyes were wide open for more than 10 hours. But when I saw my mother, I hyperventilated, cried and then blacked out," he says.

The next time he regained full consciousness was several weeks later at Singapore General Hospital (SGH).

Mr Lim did not get to go home for the next 15 months. He was warded at SGH for eight months before being transferred to Bright Vision Hospital for rehabilitation.

Then it was back to SGH.

"I couldn't sit up or turn sideways for the first eight months. There were pressure sores all over my back and heels," says Mr Lim, who went through half a dozen operations.

The accident also took a psychological toll.

For nearly a year, the sight of wheels - on TV or in newspapers - would set off anxiety attacks.

"I felt lost, I didn't want to talk to anyone," he says adding that he had to see a psychiatrist.

He credits his family and several hospital staff for getting him out of depression.

"Some of the physiotherapists went out of their way to help me. They bought me food and visited me on their days off to encourage me."

To regain his mobility, he started swimming and walking up and down from his family home on the 11th floor of an HDB block in Sengkang even though it took him a few hours.

Eager to start working again, he retook his driving test and became a driver for his former colleagues at Cathay Pacific, ferrying them to and from the airport.

When a clinic dealing in orthopaedic equipment offered him a sales job, he grabbed it. He worked there for two years, during which time he learnt a lot about prosthetics and also met Ivy, a prosthetist who became his wife last year.

He decided to start The Prosthetic Company in 2016 because he felt that the variety of prosthetic and orthotic aids here was limited.

After drawing up a proper business plan, he approached his eldest sister, a professor at a local university, for financial help. By then, Mr Lim had attended short courses on prosthetics and related subjects in Europe and China.

"I'm not certified and all the doctors and clients I deal with know that. But my staff are. I have good technical knowledge, I know how to troubleshoot. My job is to deal with clients and run the business. We've not had a single complaint ever since we started," he says proudly.

His ordeal has changed Mr Lim in more ways than one. Because others have helped him, he wants to pass the kindness on.

When he recovered, he donated blood several times and took part in support groups for those who have lost their limbs or mobility. As founder of The Prosthetic Company, he now works with different associations to offer free prosthetics to those who can't afford them.

Life is unpredictable and we have to live it well, he says.

"As long as you're hardworking and you make decisions not just to benefit yourself, things will turn out well."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 16, 2019, with the headline 'Defying the odds to walk and live anew '. Print Edition | Subscribe