A virulent infection when she was 8 years old took her legs, an arm and part of her remaining hand. But in spite of her handicaps, Kellie Lim endured to graduate UCLA medical school this spring and start her pediatric residency. - By Anne Burke
Dr. Kellie Lim beams as she announces this over a cup of coffee at Starbucks. She digs around in her handbag and pulls “it” out – a brand new UCLA Health System ID badge. Her old one said “medical student.” This one reads “resident physician: pediatrics.” That badge would entitle anyone to bragging rights but Dr. Lim, 26, has more reason than most to be proud: When she was 8 years old, her legs, right arm and several fingers on her left hand had to be amputated as a consequence of meningococcemia, a rare bacterial infection that almost took her life.
During commencement at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA this past spring, her father, Norman, siblings Nellie and Tarring, and close friend Rupa Narayan cheered as the newly minted Dr. Lim, M.D. ’07, strode across the stage in high heels fitted onto prosthetic legs. Missing that afternoon in Perloff Quad was Dr. Lim’s mother, Sandy, who died during her daughter’s first year of medical school. Her mother, who was blind, had urged Dr. Lim to never let her disability interfere with her dreams of becoming a pediatrician.
Dr. Lim embraced her mother’s counsel. Intensely driven and focused even as a child, she was valedictorian at her Warren, Mich., high school, and scored above the 90th percentile on the MCAT exam. At UCLA, a stellar performance earned her the John M. Adams Award, the top honor for excellence in pediatrics. The rigors of medical school now behind her, Dr. Lim has thrown herself headlong into an even tougher challenge – a pediatrics residency at Mattel Children’s Hospital UCLA, with a possible specialization in childhood allergies and infectious disease. “I’m really looking forward to it, but I know it’s going to be difficult,” Dr. Lim says. “It might take me just a smidgen longer to do things than other people but that’s fine.”
Dr. Edward R.B. McCabe, Mattel Executive Endowed Chair of the Department of Pediatrics and physician-in-chief at Mattel Children’s Hospital UCLA, has no concerns about Dr. Lim’s prospects: “Kellie is a star,” he says. “But she’d be a star with or without her challenges.”
DR. LIM SPEAKS MATTER-OF-FACTLY about her disabilities without dwelling on them. “I’m healthy now, and that’s all that really matters,” she says. In the hospital and exam room, Dr. Lim has a confidence and easy manner that make her patients and their parents forget about her missing limbs.
Her prosthetic legs give a slight bounce to her step but are otherwise nearly imperceptible under long pants. She lives alone, drives a car with the aid of a knob on the steering wheel, recently went surfing for the first time and has gone tandem skydiving. To her many friends, her physical condition has long ago faded into the background of their relationship with her, to the point where they hardly think about it anymore.
“What’s so remarkable about Kellie is that there’s nothing remarkable about her,” says Dr. Neil Parker, the senior associate dean of student affairs at the Geffen School. “She’s just the same as everyone else.” Dr. Lim has but dim memories of being stricken with meningococcemia. The night before she got ill, she fell asleep much earlier than usual. In the morning, 11-year-old Nellie tried to rouse her sister. Lim was too tired to move so Nellie dragged her out of the bedroom. Norman and Sandy Lim thought their daughter was just under the weather so they went ahead with a planned visit to grandmother’s house. But Lim worsened. Her tears and saliva turned bloody, and hemorrhagic lesions broke out on her body. At Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Mich., doctors quickly diagnosed meningococcemia, a highly communicable infection that could kill her within hours.
Meningococcemia attacks about 2,500 to 3,500 people in the United States each year. Lim’s case was especially severe. With toxins ravaging her extremities, surgeons amputated both legs below the knee, her right forearm and three fingertips on her left hand, leaving intact her thumb and ring finger. The surgery was so extensive that Norman Lim donated skin to graft onto his daughter’s legs. Lim teetered between life and death. Years later, when she was grown, she returned to Beaumont Hospital to read her medical report. She had no idea that doctors had given her only a 15-percent chance of surviving. “We are very fortunate to have Kellie with us. This was a severely life-threatening infection,” notes Dr. McCabe, who has treated children with meningococcemia.
After four months in the hospital, Lim went home. That was July 1989. When school started up in September, the youngster was in her regular classroom, bright-eyed and eager. At home, Norman and Sandy Lim, both immigrants from China, encouraged but did not coddle their younger daughter. Dr. Lim recalls a normal childhood – playing, fighting with her sister, getting bumps and bruises and harboring secret fantasies of life as a pop singer. Over the years, she has returned many times to the operating room for surgery on her legs. Just before starting medical school, she underwent final surgical revisions to her legs. “I’m done!” Dr.Lim says jubilantly. Though she continues to suffer from leg ulcers caused by too much walking, she does not complain. Nellie Lim says she cannot recall her sister ever feeling sorry for herself.
SANDY LIM LED BY EXAMPLE. Blind by age 20 due to retinitis pigmentosa, Dr. Lim’s mother ran a household, raised three children and got around without a cane. Norman Lim, no less an inspiration to Dr. Lim than his wife, supported the family as a chemical engineer who owned a water-treatment company. At Beaumont Hospital, where Sandy Lim kept vigil at her daughter’s bedside, the mother planted a seed that would bear fruit 18 years later. “Wouldn’t it be great to be a pediatrician? They’re so nice and so smart and they saved you!” Dr. Lim recalls her mother telling her. Two years later, a newspaper reporter asked Lim what she wanted to be when she grew up. Her answer came quickly: “A pediatrician.”
Lim majored in biology at Northwestern University. She still wanted to become a doctor but doubts nagged at her. To keep her options open, she took the GRE and LSAT exams as well as the MCAT. She scored highest on the latter. But could she get into medical school? Lim had no idea so she started calling admissions offices. She was forthcoming about her disabilities. An admissions counselor at a top-tier school she declines to name told Lim that with her physical disabilities, “we don’t think you’ll be able to do the things you need to do in medical school,” she recalls.
At first Lim let it go but in time she got “really mad.” What rankles her more than just about anything is when someone makes assumptions based on her physical condition about what she can or can’t do. Lim called the admissions counselor back and demanded to know the identity of the school official who had judged her unfit. “They emailed me and said, ‘Oh, sorry, we didn’t mean that.’” Lim applied and got in. In all, she was accepted to six medical schools; she chose UCLA. “She made it clear to me that she wanted to be judged like anyone else,” Dr. McCabe says.
SHORTLY AFTER DR. LIM BEGAN HER RESIDENCY this summer, she ran into Dr. Parker in the hospital cafeteria. The two took the opportunity to catch up over lunch. As they got up to leave, Dr. Parker’s first instinct was to pick up both lunch trays, but Dr. Lim beat him to it. “She just said, ‘I’ll take your tray,’ so I just threw my (garbage) on top of it,” Dr. Parker recalled. Later, it occurred to the senior associate dean how he must have looked letting a woman with only one good arm clean up after him. But the important thing was not what other people thought, Dr. Parker realized. It was what Dr. Lim thought, and she didn’t want or need help putting away cafeteria trays.
“You can’t think, ‘She has a handicap, and therefore I’m going to help her,’ because you’re not helping her that way,” Dr. Parker says. “You can’t put your idea of what a good deed is on somebody else.” It took Dr. Parker a while to realize that. At first, he thought it was his duty to help Lim the student figure out how to get through medical school. Dr. Parker suggested Lim wear the arm prosthesis that she had long since abandoned so she could do certain procedures, like a chest percussion, that require two hands. He had certain ideas about other adaptive devices she might use.
Dr. Parker concedes that his attitude caused some tension between the two. Dr. Lim says she wasn’t averse to getting help but if she didn’t need it, it was just an unnecessary complication. She had been getting along fine without her arm prosthesis and saw no reason to start wearing it. The percussion problem was solved with a device, built for her by a prosthetitist at the Los Angeles VA Medical Center, that she straps to her residual arm to tap a patient’s chest. Using a stethoscope and otoscope were no problem. She drew blood with the agility of her two-handed classmates and was able to tie suture knots, though perhaps “not the best suture knots,” she laughs. Her determination and skill impressed Dr. Robert L. Roberts, who supervised Lim on her pediatric allergy and immunology rotation. He acknowledges he initially had some reservations – “I was kind of apprehensive about how she would be able to examine patients and how they might react to her,” he says – but those concerns quickly were put to rest. “She did a really good job,” Dr. Roberts says. “All the patients and their parents seemed to have a very positive experience with her. There were no negative reactions at all.”
True, she can’t do everything. Surgery and intubation are not options. But Lim wouldn’t have much call to do them, anyway. Her biggest problem as she finished medical school seemed to be trying to balance her workload with a fl ood of media attention. The story of the gutsy young medical student who defied stereotypes was all over TV, newspapers and the Internet. Camera crews trailed after her at work. She was a “Person of the Week” on ABC World News with Charles Gibson, and was featured in People magazine and the Los Angeles Times. It was fun at first, but became wearying and a distraction after a while.
DURING HER FINAL WEEKS IN MEDICAL SCHOOL, Lim did a routine check-up on Bethany Schramm, a 7-year-old with food allergies. In the exam room, Lim lowered herself to Bethany’s eye level and directed her questions to her young patient rather than her mother, Elaine Hussey, who had brought the second-grader to Mattel Children’s Hospital UCLA. Lim let Bethany listen to her own heart with a stethoscope. Before touching Bethany, she sanitized both her left hand and residual arm.
It seemed to Hussey that Lim was not only comfortable around Bethany but also with herself. But more than that, knowing what had happened to Lim as a child, Hussey had a sense that the future Dr. Lim would be the best pediatrician for Bethany. “She knows firsthand how devastating a childhood illness can be, and I just feel that, if something were to go really wrong, Kellie would be more likely than other doctors might be to chase down every possibility. Maybe that’s not fair of me, but I just think that,” Hussey says.
When Lim was in the hospital as a child, her father took a family photo that says as much about her as anything else. In the picture, the 8-year-old Lim sits erect in a wheelchair wearing a bright yellow hospital gown, her shiny black hair falling to her shoulders. Sandy Lim, holding baby Tarring, and Nellie stand behind her. Lim’s three amputated limbs are swathed in white bandages, her tiny leg stumps stick straight out. But what really grabs one’s attention is not the devastation to Lim’s young body. It is the enormous smile on her face.
Anne Burke is a freelance writer in Los Angeles.
Editor’s Note: It is the usual practice of UCLA Medicine to use the honorific title Dr. in all references before the names of persons who have earned M.D. or Ph.D. degrees. In this article, we alternate between applying the honorific and not applying it to Kellie Lim to distinguish the period before she earned her M.D. from the present.
Photography by Duncan Stewart