Photo by Jonathan Garcia

After immigrating to the United States with his family as a six-week-old baby, Samson Lim's journey in navigating the vicissitudes of life has given him exceptional insight into overcoming adversity and persevering through hardship.

When I was six weeks old, my family left Singapore and moved to the United States, settling down in Portland, Oregon. Growing up, my three sisters and I were constantly told by my parents that education was important. My personal dream, however, was to play in the NBA. I played basketball every chance I got — before school, during school, and after school. In the third grade though, I suffered a severe ankle sprain.

Six months later, my sprained ankle still had not healed properly, causing me difficulty in walking and controlling my ankle. After visiting doctor after doctor, I was finally diagnosed with dystonia — a rare neurological movement disorder caused by a genetic mutation and triggered by limb trauma. In my case, a sprained ankle sparked the onset of symptoms resulting from dystonia.

Over the next few years, my ability to walk, to stand, to simply move became increasingly difficult. By fifth grade, I could no longer walk without crutches. By sixth grade, I was confined to a wheelchair. As a twelve year old who had grown up with an active childhood, the excruciating challenge of every little movement made it incredibly difficult to stay hopeful that I would ever get better.

My father attempted to help me remain focused on making steps toward progress in every physical therapy session and countless doctor visits. "Make a goal for yourself," he would tell me, "Make it a goal to walk at your high school graduation without the help of a wheelchair, crutches, or a cane. Your mother and I won't always be around to take care of you, so you have to figure out a way to live your life."

His words stuck with me, even if he didn't think they would. I worked hard in my physical therapy sessions (well, at least most of the time), and I tried to keep an optimistic outlook. In the ninth grade, I had a small pump implanted into my left abdomen. Its job was to pump medicine — a muscle relaxant — to my spinal cord, which would mix with my spinal fluid and flow through my body in an attempt to help me relax. Up to this point, I had been taking the oral version of this medication, and it had been one of the few treatments to work.

While the surgery seemed to help a bit, any positive effects soon all but disappeared. I was back to square one. Two years after that surgery, my family and I moved to Spokane, Washington, where I would have to start my junior year at a new high school in a new city in a new state. Being the new kid on the block wasn't easy — and having a wheelchair certainly didn't help much either. But, fortunately, I was able to make many new friends that year. 

After the school year ended in June, I traveled to the University of California, San Francisco Medical Center. There, I would undergo a surgery called Deep Brain Stimulation, in which electrodes are placed in the part of the brain that controls movement to help ensure the correct signals are being transmitted from the brain to muscles. The entire procedure would last nine hours — of which I was awake for three hours during the placement of the electrodes.

When I finally awoke from the surgery, the results were like night and day. For the first time in more than six years, I remembered what it felt like to relax again. The following three months brought on intensive physical therapy — three times a week — as I regained strength and retrained my muscles. In short, I had to relearn how to walk. The DBS operation — although the most effective treatment, by far, that I have received for my dystonia — is exactly that, just treatment. Thus, my ability to walk is still not 100%, and I often walk with a slight but noticeable limp.

At my high school graduation, I remembered the goal my father had encouraged me to set. By this time, I was just using a cane to help in my walking. But, as I made my way up the steps to walk across the stage, I passed my cane to our school's activities director and asked him to bring it to the other side. I met my goal, and it was one of the most fulfilling feelings I have ever experienced.

That was in 2006.

As I have gotten older, I have moved away from sharing the story with all its nitty-gritty details (it's still pretty long, though, huh?), but the core of the story remains: I had set a goal, and no matter how long it took, how difficult of a challenge it was, and how many obstacles stood in my way, I met that goal. In the years since, I have set — and met — many more goals. I've studied abroad multiple times, I've graduated from college, I've lived abroad for a year as a Fulbright Scholar, I've worked on a number of startup companies and nonprofits, I've received a master's degree from an Ivy League institution, I've worked a bit in Washington, DC, and now I work for a phenomenal national nonprofit organization.

The next steps of my story are an exciting opportunity to build on what feels like a lifetime commitment to ensuring that every individual has the opportunities to turn their dreams into reality, whether through education, work, or service opportunities. As I move through the various chapters of my life, I will carry with me the personal philosophy I have come to embrace during my long (and continuous) battle with dystonia: Never underestimate your story or your ability to impact others.


If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.
— John Quincy Adams

Fun Facts About Sam

  • Applied for over 75 scholarships in high school, winning 18 local and national awards.
  • Grew up as the only boy and second oldest among four children.
  • Underwent brain surgery (Deep Brain Stimulation) in 2005, one of ten total surgeries Sam has had. 
  • Traveled to 14 different countries across North and Latin America, Europe, and Asia, spending extensive time (at least a month) in Germany, Greece, Italy, and Singapore.
  • Lived in four different states: Oregon, Washington, New York, and the District of Columbia.
  • Met Oprah at the 2006 Horatio Alger National Scholars Conference, getting a huge hug, an autograph, and a few photos along the way.
  • Appeared as a guest on the Northwest Afternoon Show in Seattle, sitting in possibly the same seat then-Senator Barack Obama sat in when he made an appearance on the now-cancelled show.