It Changed My Life

The girl with something special

Photography student with physical deformities overcomes challenges and has her works on display

Isabelle Lim weighs only 30kg, is deaf and has has just four fingers on each hand. She has Nager Syndrome - of which there are only 200 documented cases worldwide - and has undergone multiple operations. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM
Isabelle took this picture of her parents Jacqueline and Nick Lim. "They always ensure that my self-confidence will not be shaken as I grow," she says of them. PHOTO: ISABELLE LIM

When Isabelle Lim was two years old, her parents took her to a mall in Adelaide, Australia.

Because she had metal pins screwed to both sides of her jaw, she caught the attention of another little girl who loudly told her mother: "Mummy, look at what she has on her face."

Isabelle's mother, Mrs Jacqueline Lim, looked at the curious girl and quipped: "That's because she talks too much."

It was her way of making light of a sombre situation.

Her daughter did not talk then, and still does not because she has profound hearing loss. In Adelaide, she had just gone through an operation called distraction because she was born with a jaw so recessed it made breathing extremely difficult. The metal pins were surgically inserted to lengthen her jaw so that she could breathe without the aid of a tube.

In fact, when Isabelle was born 21 years ago, doctors told her parents she would face a mountain of challenges, from eating to seeing.

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Isabelle Lim was born deaf with multiple physical challenges but that didn't stop her from pursuing her dreams of photography.

She has Nager Syndrome, a rare genetic disorder characterised by facial and limb deformities. There are reportedly fewer than 200 documented cases worldwide, and those with it have anomalies including downward slanting eyelids, underdeveloped cheeks or jaws, and the absence of lower eyelashes.

Her father, businessman Nick Lim, 65, recalls: "Isabelle's elbows were also fused, and her thumbs were dangling, hanging by a thread of skin."

The baby's condition came as a shock especially since Mrs Lim, who was 30 when she gave birth, had had a smooth pregnancy.

But there was never a doubt that they would love Isabelle unconditionally.

Mr Lim says: "We read up on books on how to help a child with special needs. One of our first books was given by a friend; it taught us that every child is special and that you should focus on the child rather than her disabilities. We celebrated any progress she made because it would help to develop her self-esteem and confidence."

Standing at just 1.48m and weighing merely 30kg, their special child may be a wisp of a girl today, but her lively eyes and cheerful disposition speak volumes about her zest for life.

She digs Korean dramas, loves romantic novels by Nicholas Sparks - the American author whose works such as The Notebook and The Long Ride have been adapted for the big screen - and takes pretty neat pictures with her smartphone. One, a black-and-white Instagram shot of a Lee Kuan Yew bust, was recently published in The New Paper.

Despite her disabilities, she completed her N levels, has a certificate in accounting from the Institute of Technical Education (ITE), and is now a final-year photography major at the LaSalle College of the Arts.

The credit, she says, goes to her parents. "I'm very blessed and thankful to have such devoted parents who nurtured me into who I am. They always ensure that my self-confidence will not be shaken as I grow," says Miss Lim, who replies to questions in this interview via Whatsapp messages or through her mother, her sign language interpreter.

It has not been an easy journey. For the first eight months of her life, Isabelle's home was the Singapore General Hospital where she was attended to by an array of doctors for her various afflictions.

"All that they could do was to keep her alive; she had one tube for feeding, and one for breathing," says Mr Lim. "We visited her every day, leaving only after midnight. We spent the time bonding with her, hoping to take her home."

Doctors allowed them to take their baby home only after they had learnt to insert the vital breathing and feeding tubes.

Mrs Lim says: "Can you imagine having a foreign tube inserted into the nostrils? Because it was so traumatic, she would always struggle and tear them away and it was heartbreaking to see. My husband and a domestic helper would hold her down, I would slip the tubes in."

And they had to wake up often at night to check that their daughter was still breathing.

To communicate with her, both parents learnt sign language and taught her too.

By the time she was 12, Isabelle had undergone at least three major operations, two to lengthen her jaw and another to remove her dangling thumbs. Through a procedure known as pollicisation, a hand surgeon removed her index fingers and transplanted them to function as thumbs so that she would be able to grip objects.

"She got used to them, and learnt to write as if she was born with eight fingers," says Mr Lim.

There were other struggles. Until she was nine years old, Isabelle was fed via a tube inserted through the abdomen to deliver nutrition directly to the stomach.

Then she needed eating therapy to learn how to eat and chew.

"My first meal was chicken rice from Tiong Bahru Hawker Centre. After that, I got hooked and ate it for days wherever I went," she says, adding that she also loves bulgogi and lasagna. She loves omelette too, but only if it is cooked by her grandmother.

From kindergarten through her primary school years, she had to wear an eye patch. Her left eyeball tended to roll up, exposing just the whites, and to get the weak eye to work better, she had to wear an eye patch on her right eye.

"When she was in school, she would dutifully leave it on; but when she came home, she would bargain with me to take it off. But really, she took all these challenges in her stride. She has a very positive nature and temperament, which made taking care of her easy," Mrs Lim says.

The Lims videotaped the key chapters in Isabelle's life to record her numerous challenges and operations.

A voracious reader, Isabelle completed her primary education at The Singapore School For The Deaf before attending Balestier Hill Secondary School, and the transition to a normal school needed some adjustment.

"I had to integrate with speaking teachers and students who could not understand sign language. There were resource teachers for core subjects like English and Maths, but other than that, I had to rely on myself," she recalls. "I had to go home and follow up by reading my textbooks and making sure I understood the day's lessons."

Although she could have sat the O levels, she decided to pursue a Higher Nitec (National ITE Certification) in accounting, thinking it would help her job prospects.

It was a big mistake. "My first year was like a silent movie. I had no help and I struggled. I only had the help of an interpreter in my second year," she says.

An internship and a brief stint working for a speech therapist also made her realise crunching numbers was not her cup of tea. "It was so boring. I was staring at the computer the whole day," she signs, shaking her head.

She decided to study photography instead.

Her interest had been piqued in Primary 5, when one of her teachers allowed her to play with his camera. She started fiddling with her mother's mobile phone and a point-and-shoot digital camera before an uncle gave her a Nikon D90 two years ago.

At LaSalle, she became the first recipient of the Dare To Dream scholarship set up for deserving students with special needs.

In her application for the scholarship, she wrote about how she had become a more observant and intuitive photographer: "I can sense people's laughter, joy and cheerlessness as I look into the lens and capture them."

At LaSalle, she has an interpreter and a note taker - from the Singapore Association of The Deaf's Itinerant Support Service - to help her cope with her studies. She is doing well, and has had several of her pictures featured in exhibitions.

"My dream is to get a lot more exposure shooting people, objects and events so that when I'm ready to set up my studio, I would have learnt everything," she says.

Isabelle has a younger brother, but it took the Lims five years to decide to have another child. They went ahead partly because they did not want their daughter to be alone after they were gone.

Mr Lim says: "It has not been easy for our son Ian. Because we had to help Isabelle out, we might have taken him for granted more than we should. But we also love him unconditionally."

Ian, 16, will begin his polytechnic studies soon.

Isabelle, meanwhile, has dreams of meeting Mr Right.

"I would like to have a boyfriend but not to get pregnant," she says, to the amusement of her parents. "How will I take care of the baby if I give birth to someone like me?"

Her ideal boyfriend would be someone "who is God-fearing, has a good heart and thinks I am special".

She then looks affectionately at her father and adds: "Like my father, who tells me I am special every day."

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