God’s picture perfect gift: How a young woman overcame a rare disorder to become a professional photographer
by Christine Leow // October 29, 2020, 6:24 pm
Isabelle Lim was born with Nager syndrome that left her with facial and limb deformities. She is also profoundly deaf. But as a professional photographer, she says: “Every shoot is God-led so I can glorify God through my photography." All photos courtesy of Isabelle Lim.
Full-time photographer Isabelle Lim, 26, and her mother Jacqueline, 55, have a relationship many parents would envy. They are easy with each other, joking and chatting like the best of friends.
Mum knows Isabelle, or Issy as she calls her, so well that she not only finishes her sentences, she can anticipate her thoughts as well. Issy, in turn, teases her mother with affectionate jibes.
Asked if mum, who was rushing home after the interview with Salt&Light to make beef stew for dinner, is a good cook, Issy rolls her eyes cheekily and smiles.
This is a bond developed from years of being almost constantly together. Issy is profoundly deaf, having been born with Nager syndrome, a rare genetic disorder. Worldwide there are fewer than 200 documented cases of the condition which is characterised by facial and limb deformities. Mum Jacqueline is Issy’s interpreter – her ears and voice to the world.
When Jacqueline became pregnant with her first child, she was elated. After trying for a few months, she had gone to church one day and had prayed to conceive. Not long after that prayer, she became pregnant.
“The only thought I could remember was that she is a gift.”
“She is God’s gift to us.”
Jacqueline had no inkling that there would be anything wrong with her baby.
“I had a very easy pregnancy. Everything went smoothly. I didn’t have morning sickness. In fact, I worked till the day before I gave birth,” said the former insurance agent.
Even when the scan at six months showed bubbles in her baby’s stomach, Jacqueline was not overly concerned.
“My gynae said maybe she is lazy to swallow and the worst-case scenario would be that her oesophagus was not connected to her stomach and that she may need surgery to fix it. But he assured us not to worry too much.”
Then, Issy was born, barely tipping the scales at past 2kg. Her arms were fused together at the elbow so they could not fully extend. Her thumbs were dangling just by the skin of her hands. Her jaw was so recessed she could neither breathe nor nurse properly. She was also deaf.
Jacqueline saw God’s providence at every turn.
Asked what went through her mind when she saw her baby, Jacqueline said: “The only thought I could remember was that she is a gift. I cannot reject this gift because God gave her to me.
“My biggest fear was losing her and nothing else. She was (in my tummy) for nine months. I felt her movements, I knew her. If she was taken away, this journey as a mother would be too short.”
Though Issy survived, there would be no sweet homecoming for a long time. She would spend the first eight months of her life in the hospital attached to tubes – one that fed her and another that helped her breathe – while the doctors worked to correct her deformities.
The Lims spent most of their waking moments in the hospital with Issy in those early months. Though the going was tough, Jacqueline saw God’s providence at every turn.
“I had to hand-squeeze my breastmilk for her to be tube-fed for every feed because the pump didn’t seem to work for me. As she grew, the nurse would tell me, ’10ml more for each feed’.
“Do you know how much more that is per day? 80ml. But somehow, God provided and I could keep pumping more and more.”
“God has led my husband to see His peace.”
Not very close to God until then, Jacqueline saw her relationship with Him strengthen as she witnessed His continual providence “beyond our imagination”.
“From Day One, God sent His angels in many forms to give us support – our families, helper, friends, the medical team, teachers, even strangers. Their friendship and prayers carried us through our journey with Issy.”
Her husband, Nick, 70, became a Christian during that time. Invited to an Alpha meeting one night, he was so touched by God’s presence during worship that he went home and told his family: “Let’s go to church this Sunday.”
Said Jacqueline: “Throughout Issy’s life, God has led my husband to see His peace. I am amazed how God could use Issy to turn my husband to Him. You could say Issy drew us to God.”
Special in His eyes
Even when the Lims could finally take Issy home, the battle was far from over. Issy still relied on a tube to breathe. So, her parents had to take turns to clear the tube of fluids every two hours, night or day. She would have to go through two more major surgeries to correct her jaw so she could breathe better. One at age two, and the other at 12. Each required metal pins to be screwed to either sides of her jaw.
There was also the surgery on her hands when she was five. In a procedure known as pollicization, doctors removed her thumbs and moved her index fingers to replace them so she could get a better grip of things. This allowed her to write and, very importantly, to sign.
Issy has only good memories of growing up.
Said Jacqueline: “Every little step of progress she made, I knew God provided that.”
Issy’s entire childhood was marked by medical procedures and various means to sustain her life. She had to be fed through a tube on a simple diet of milk and plain porridge till she was eight. She was in Secondary One before she got her first taste of chicken rice. Her favourite food today, though, is her uncle’s fried rice and omelette.
To help her breathe better, she slept with a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine till she was 11.
Despite all this, Issy only has good memories of growing up.
“I had a happy childhood. My family and relatives accepted me for who I am. My parents built up my confidence when I was very young. I was taught to accept who I am because I am created in God’s image – fearfully and wonderfully made, with a purpose to be an inspiration to others.
After the initial grief over their daughter’s condition, they purposed to “love her unconditionally and give her our best”.
“I was also taught to turn my deafness to my advantage. My father would always tell me, ‘Remember, you are a Special Child’,” said Issy.
Interjected her mum: ““Issy was a very happy and loving child. She’s a fighter.”
Issy’s sanguine outlook has much to do with how the Lims raised her as well. After the initial grief over their daughter’s condition – “both hubby and I cried with heavy hearts” – they purposed to “love her unconditionally and give her our best”.
They played with her, read to her and taught her like they would any child. “I didn’t want to see her as a child with disabilities. I always see her abilities.”
Husband and wife went for sign language classes to teach Issy to communicate. It took them two years to master the language.
“I was taught to accept who I am because I am created in God’s image.”
“We taught her language like she was a speaking child. She was a very curious and fast learner. While I practised my signs, she would sit there waiting for us to teach her,” recalled Jacqueline.
Because there were few programmes with subtitles for Issy to watch, she grew up watching a lot of Indian and Chinese programmes.
“Once, I asked her to go to bed and she told me, ‘Let me finish watching this Indian movie. They’re dancing’,” said Jacqueline with a laugh.
These days, its K-drama that Issy watches. An avid reader as well, she counts romance novels among her favourites.
Out in the real world
It was when Issy switched from a special needs primary school to a mainstream one that the protective bubble she lived in burst.
“When I got anxious before an exam, I would pray because … God is always with me. He holds my hand.”
In her new school, she was one of only a handful of deaf students. Even with the help of resource teachers who served as interpreters during lessons, the former straight ‘A’ student began to find school a challenge.
“I was in the real world where the hearing kids were combined with deaf kids and the world was not as friendly as I thought. I learnt to rely on God and that built my faith.
“When I got anxious before an exam, I would pray because I learnt that I am not alone. God is always with me. He holds my hand. I do my part to study and God will do the rest.”
As with the many challenges in her life, Issy would eventually adapt. With the help of teachers and classmates, she did well enough to do the ‘O’ levels after her ‘N’ levels.
Said Issy: “I loved competing with the top five students in my class because it not only pushed me to do better but it also showed that I could be on a level playing field with them.
“Some people think deafness equals being illiterate or worse, mute, which is a straight ‘no’. Besides friendly competition, I helped my classmates with homework and in return they helped me write down notes or lent me their notes.”
Issy chose, however, to go to Higher Nitec (National ITE Certification) to take up accountancy instead of continuing in secondary school and doing the ‘O’ levels.
“Some people think deafness equals being illiterate or worse, mute.”
This time around, the learning curve was even steeper. The course proved tough. “All of us were struggling in the first year because it was new.”
But for Issy, the challenge was greater because there were no resource teachers to interpret the lessons.
“Classes felt like a silent movie. I was sinking, drowning,” she said. “For the first time, I felt like a failure.”
In the second year, she managed to get a resource teacher who helped her catch up with a year’s worth of lessons.
“But it was too late. I didn’t have a strong foundation from my first year. Even when my results improved, I was already losing my passion in accounting.”
A new path opens up
Never one to mope in self-pity, Issy found herself a new pursuit.
“I found joy joining the Photography Club in ITE. That was how I kept from dropping out of ITE. So, it was a blessing in disguise. I learnt a lot from the people in the Photography Club. They were very nice people.”
“If You want me to go to LASALLE to study photography, give me peace of heart and mind.”
Issy had always had an interest in photography. In primary school, she was inspired by a teacher who was a shutterbug to try her hand at taking photos with an old Nokia phone.
“He would show his photos on his laptop to celebrate the completion of our exams. I was impressed by how memories can be captured through the lens.”
By the time Issy was in secondary school, photography had become a hobby. Picking it up again at ITE not only gave her more opportunities to hone her skills, it also opened up new possibilities.
“It made me realise I could make this my career. I was at a crossroad – go to poly and continue accounting because it would provide financial stability or go to LASALLE to pursue art photography with almost no idea where it would lead me.
“I prayed for direction. I said, ‘God, if You want me to go to LASALLE to study photography, give me peace of heart and mind. If you want me to continue studying accounting, give me an uncomfortable feeling.”
With a smile she added: “You know where I landed.”
God continued to confirm His calling. Not once but twice.
Said Jacqueline: “To go to LASALLE to do photography, she had to do 3D and 2D art but she said, ‘I don’t know how to do any of it but I just want to do it’.”
But first, Issy had to get in and LASALLE College of the Arts required both a portfolio, something she did not have, as well as an interview.
“I had to ask a teacher friend of mine how to put a portfolio together,” said Jacqueline.
With just days between her final exam and the interview, Issy hastily put together 10 simple art pieces. Competition was stiff but she made the cut.
“At the interview I realised that it wasn’t my portfolio that would get me in. They wanted to see if students are teachable,” said Issy.
Jacqueline chimed in with pride in her voice: “In that aspect, she was teachable and hungry to learn.”
“Most concepts came from God at night when I couldn’t sleep.”
Once at LASALLE, Issy also became the first recipient of the Dare To Dream Scholarship which is awarded to new Diploma students with special needs who have good performance, and a track record or relevant experience in their chosen fields.
Jacqueline believes it is all part of God’s providence again: “We were looking at the art fees plus the fact that we had to get an interpreter for her. It’s paid by the hour so it would nearly double the fees.”
To help matters, the school made concessions for Jacqueline to attend classes with Issy and be her interpreter. After three years, Jacqueline joked, she should have gotten a diploma as well.
The years in LASALLE opened up a whole new world for Issy.
“My lecturers were very open, patient and willing to go the extra mile to check on how I was coping. Best of all, they pushed me to greater heights.
“I had fun classmates to soldier through crazy project deadlines. We whined, cried, pushed, encouraged and celebrated together.”
Above all, art school allowed Issy to see God’s hand even more in her life.
“Most concepts came from God at night when I couldn’t sleep, overwhelmed with what I should do for every new project.”
God in the picture
After graduating, becoming a professional photographer came naturally. After all, Issy was already getting gigs while she was still in school.
“I’m not engaged (for jobs) out of pity.”
Said Jacqueline: “She told me to give her two to three years to try it out on her own. If she couldn’t make it, she would seek employment.”
It has been four years and the projects are still streaming in steadily.
“The people who have given her jobs are really godsend. She doesn’t really advertise. It’s all by word-of-mouth,” said Jacqueline.
Assured Issy: “I’m not engaged (for jobs) out of pity.”
That is not to say that everything has been plain sailing.
“People would say, ‘Poor thing, look at her’. And I would say, ‘There’s nothing wrong with her. She’s perfectly fine’.”
“My favourite verse is ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness’ (2 Corinthians 12:9) because I’m nothing without God. When I started to work, this verse became even more real to me.
“When I cover events, there would be these other photographers who can hear and they know what is happening but I don’t have that ability. That is my weakness. So, when I depend on Him, He makes me strong.”
Lending her extra strength is her mum who is now not just her interpreter and note-taker, but her assistant as well. To allow her petite daughter to move easily during events – Issy weighs just 30kg and is 1.48m tall – Jacqueline carries her equipment.
“I follow her for every assignment. At the shoot, Issy will sometimes give me one word for the clients or tell me the mood she wants and I will tell the clients,” said Jacqueline.
When Issy is overwhelmed, mum is her cheerleader, too.
“Every image is God-led so I can glorify God.”
“Perhaps God has given me a positive mindset and blinded me to her disabilities. Even when she was young, people would say, ‘Poor thing, look at her’. And I would say, ‘There’s nothing wrong with her. She’s perfectly fine’.
“People would think I’m crazy. But I just didn’t want to allow myself to see her in a negative light. I want to see that she is able to do anything. So, when she is shaken by a big event, I will sit her down and tell her, ‘God gave you this job. God says you can do it’.”
That is why, in every project, Issy is mindful that God is her partner.
“Every time (I do a project), I pray. I will ask God to give me a vision of what He wants me to capture through my lenses. I will also pray to Him to lead me where He wants me to go at the right moment.
“Every shoot is God-led so I can glorify God through my photography. My pictures are a testimony to God.”
Salt&Light Family Night: I’m raising a special needs child
For some families, the fact that theirs is a special child is apparent at birth. For others, it takes time and missed milestones to discover.
How can families parent their special needs child? What support is there for their academic, physical and spiritual growth? How can the church come along these families?
Join hosts Carol Loi and Alex Tee as they talk to two families who have special needs children about their journey, their triumphs and the lessons learnt.
Date: Tuesday, November 10, 2020
Register at: https://bit.ly/SLFamilyNight10Nov