Generation Grit: He broke his bones more than a hundred times but his spirit was unbreakable

Mr Jeremy Lim, 29, was born with brittle bone disease. Growing up, he broke his bones very often and was bullied in school, but that did not get him down.

SINGAPORE - When he was a child, a simple sneeze or a cough could snap his bones "like twigs", causing excruciating pain for Mr Jeremy Lim, 29, who has osteogenesis imperfecta, or brittle bone disease.

Even the process of coming into this world heralded what was to come, with two broken bones, an arm and a femur, as he was being delivered.

The condition meant he was born with a lack of collagen, which is needed for strong bone formation. Because of it, he is now only 1.32m tall, unable to walk or move about on his own, and uses a wheelchair. Worldwide, approximately one in 20,000 people have brittle bone disease.

"I've broken my bones more than a hundred times, some more than once," said Mr Lim, who has just graduated with a master's in Japanese studies and is planning to obtain a PhD.

The more unexpected breaks were especially traumatic, he added.

Once, as a baby of about 18 months old, he moved awkwardly in his sleep, and broke his femur. His mother, Madam Wong Liang Ming, 56, heard a jarring pop, and then her son crying in pain.

When he was 12, he was at Takashimaya Shopping Centre one day with his mother when an unnoticed threshold tripped up his wheelchair, causing him to fall out of it and break an arm and a thigh bone.

They had been out shopping for a new vest he needed in a singing competition the next day and the incident did not stop him from taking part, though he went on stage with his arm in a sling and his thigh heavily bandaged.

"The pain is inevitable, but misery is optional," said Mr Lim, when asked how he coped with it.

Choosing not to wallow in self-pity, he taught himself to write with his left hand when he broke his right arm. He now considers himself ambidextrous.

 
 
 
 

As he grew older, he became more aware of his body's limits, and took more care with it. He also went on the drug pamidronate, which increased his bone mineral density, for 12 years till 2008.

Now, his bone mineral density levels are in the positive and he can barely remember the last time he broke a bone.

But while the periods of physical pain - breaking a bone feels like being stabbed, he said - decreased as he got older, he named his experiences of being bullied in his all-boys secondary school as among the lowest times of his life.

"The bullies would take my water bottle and put it on top of the speaker where I couldn't reach it, or if I scored well in a test, take my paper and throw it in the bin," said Mr Lim, who was also called names like "wheels" or "onion head", in reference to his slightly larger than average-sized head, a symptom of his condition.

Once, he came back from recess to see that someone had spat on his table. A teacher even told him "it is your fault" when he reported the bullying, saying that it was caused by his being vocal in class, something he never shied from as his parents had always encouraged him to speak his mind and ask questions when he was unsure.

"It felt like I was being driven into a corner, so I looked for the silver lining, and told myself that words are only hurtful if you give them meaning," said Mr Lim.

Happily, when he moved on to junior college and university, the people around him were more mature and welcoming.

His junior college, Temasek JC, even put in 11 ramps and a lift for him when he enrolled, after taking him on a tour around the school to see where the problem areas were.

His classmates were also supportive, said his mother, who accompanied Mr Lim to school throughout the years, to help him get around between classes. "When the lift broke down, one of his strong classmates would carry him up to the lecture theatre on Level 2, and his other classmates would carry up the wheelchair," said Madam Wong.


Mr Jeremy Lim and his mother, Madam Wong Liang Ming. ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

Madam Wong quit her job as an assistant IT course coordinator when she gave birth to Mr Lim, to care for him full time. Her husband Lim Teong Chin, 71, recently retired from his role as a general manager in a local sports association.

It was during his postgraduate studies at the National University of Singapore that Mr Lim found his passion. As a teaching assistant during his master's course, he enjoyed the interactions with the students and the imparting of knowledge. In his mind, he would formulate what he felt were the most effective pedagogies to keep students interested in actual learning, and less focused on rote learning.

His enthusiasm showed in his work, winning him the Graduate Students' Teaching Award three semesters in a row, he shared.

"Ah, bragging again," joked Madam Wong during the interview.

"There's nothing wrong with taking pride in your work," Mr Lim shot back with a grin.

Certainly, Mr Lim has achievements to be proud of. Aside from his degrees, he also has a Grade 8 in musical theatre, and was the National Kidney Foundation's (NKF) young ambassador for its Children's Medical Fund from 2001 to 2005.

He can also drive - he has his own car that is retrofitted with hand controls - and lost 30kg in the last 10 years when he decided it was time to shed the extra weight, mainly through controlling his diet.


Mr Jeremy Lim, who is only 1.32m tall, is unable to walk or move about on his own, and uses a wheelchair. ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

His long-time friend, educator Jovi Tan, 30, said: "Jeremy is always jovial and full of life. He is an inspiration to many of us and has a good heart."

Mr Lim speaks fondly of his time with NKF as an experience that changed his perspective. His role included meeting beneficiaries, some of whom had the same condition as him, and others who had illnesses such as leukaemia or kidney problems, and were not as well-to-do.

"You never really know how fortunate you are until you meet someone less fortunate," he said, candidly.

He added: "I identified with many of them, as I know what it's like to have a chronic illness. But there is no one person who sees the world the same way."

He is realistic about what it is like to have his disease. When asked if he wanted to marry and have children, he said: "No, I don't want children right now.

 
 
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"I don't know if I'll be able to take care of them and support a family."

While he does not yet have firm plans for the future, he is keen on starting a project teaching underprivileged young people life skills such as money management or tax filing.

He is also thinking about doing a PhD in Asian studies or communications and new media as he is interested in joining academia and teaching. Education, he says, is how he can be a useful member of society and make a positive change.

That impulse was something his parents imbued in him at a young age. Madam Wong said: "Being born like this doesn't mean he should be treated differently. We treated him normally and prepared him for life, and taught him to be independent."

"If he needed to be punished in school or at home, then he would be punished. There was no 'discount'," she added.

Mr Lim said: "My parents were instrumental in giving me the mental fortitude and emotional strength I have now.

"One hundred per cent, I would not be here without them."