Mark Pollock overcame blindness to take on some of the world’s toughest tests of endurance, until a fall left him paralysed and facing his greatest challenge yet – to walk again. Thanks to grim determination and pioneering ‘robotic legs’, that dream is now becoming a reality.
On July 2 2010 Mark Pollock was at the Henley Royal Regatta, enjoying time off. He had just completed his latest adventure, the Round Ireland Yacht Race, one of the most challenging sailing races in the world, becoming the first blind man to co-skipper a boat in the 870-mile six-day non-stop race. It was the latest in a series of challenges, including racing to the South Pole and running a marathon on Everest, that he had done each year since going blind at the age of 22. But at 10.30pm that evening, after returning to a friend’s house, he fell out of an upstairs window (he cannot remember the details of how he fell). He landed, unconscious, 25ft below on the lawn, where his shocked friends were standing.
He fractured his skull and broke his back in three places, leaving him paralysed from the waist down. On August 3 he had an operation at the specialist spinal injury hospital in Stoke Mandeville, Buckinghamshire, to clear the spinal cord of broken bone and put a series of rods and screws into his back. He suffered multiple demoralising infections where his highest temperature was 105.8F. ‘I had three weeks of vomiting, sky-high temperatures, ice-baths, blood draws from ever-retreating veins, drips and scans,’ he said. ‘My spirit was close to breaking point.’ He recovered, only to catch another infection.
By September 20 he was finally well enough to try to lever himself into a wheelchair for the first time. As the blood drained from the top half of his body and into his legs, he fainted. ‘It was emotional, painful and exhausting, but at least it was progress,’ he wrote defiantly on his blog the next day. By December 31 that optimism had waned. The once-strong endurance athlete had lost three stone in weight – mainly muscle loss. ‘I have spent the second half of the year almost exclusively flat on my back in hospital,’ he wrote. ‘[I’m] paralysed, blind and broken.’
It was heartbreaking to read. I first met Pollock in September 2008 when he was preparing to race to the South Pole against five other teams from around the world, including James Cracknell and Ben Fogle. He was 32, his olive skin tanned from 12 months of outdoor training, and he looked strong and muscular – he had been running with enormous tractor tyres tied to his waist to prepare for the 90kg sleds he would be pulling in the Antarctic. He was excited about the adventure – a huge grin took over his whole face – but his frequent self-deprecating jokes showed he was also nervous. The race, which was 480 miles and would take 22 days in temperatures as low as -58F, was to commemorate Captain Scott’s doomed voyage of 1911. For Pollock it was more personal. It would mark the 10th anniversary of him going blind. ‘An anniversary like that can mark you if you don’t get in there first,’ he told me then.
Pollock lost the sight in his right eye when he was five. He had (undiagnosed) weak retinas and a bump on the head (‘probably in the playground, I didn’t notice’) led to his right retina detaching. ‘My parents would always say that my eye situation never really bothered me,’ he said. ‘I knew I shouldn’t really play rugby or football because I might lose the sight in my other eye, so I threw myself into rowing and sailing.’
He continued rowing at Trinity College, Dublin, where he was studying business and economics, and got into the Irish national team in 1997. But when he was training in April 1998 he noticed his vision was blurred. Two weeks later, at 22, he was completely blind.
After two failed operations to save his sight, he moved back to his mother’s house in Belfast (his parents, Barbara Carson and Johnny Pollock are divorced) and sank into a depression. ‘With that second detached retina went my independence and identity. The shock was so great that I denied it was real. I truly expected every morning to wake up and for it all to have been some sort of horrible mistake. I lay in bed hoping for the impossible. I had no identity other than: “Mark can’t get a job, can’t have a relationship, can’t row.”’
But he slowly rebuilt his life. He got a guide dog, Larry, moved back to Dublin and found a job at a management consultancy. The next step was rowing, a huge part of his identity before he went blind. He asked his former rowing partner, Brendan Smyth, to help him train and together they won silver and bronze medals for Northern Ireland at the Commonwealth Rowing Championships in 2002.
The next year Pollock ran the Gobi Desert 156-mile ultra-marathon – six marathons in a week in extreme heat – with his friend Nick Wolfe. ‘Winning races was a big part of who I was before I went blind and the feeling I got from completing the Gobi Desert helped me recapture part of that life.’ The next year he raced against Sir Ranulph Fiennes in the North Pole marathon in April, completed Ironman Switzerland in July 2006 and two weeks later kayaked from Wales to Ireland. He became the first blind person to complete the lowest and highest marathons in the world – the Dead Sea Ultra in Jordan in April 2007, followed by the gruelling Tenzing-Hillary Everest marathon in Nepal the next month with his team mate John O’Regan.
But he realised he was doing the challenges for the wrong reasons. ‘I didn’t win the Everest marathon; in fact I came last, miles behind everyone else. I thought to myself, “I’m getting my photo in the newspaper because I’m a blind guy, not because of my performance.” I was doing these adventures to put the blindness behind me and it turned out to be the very reason I was being congratulated.’
That was when he read about the Amundsen Omega 3 South Pole Race. When telling people about the trip, he said, they were more captivated by the Antarctic than his disability. ‘It finally felt like a true adventure – something to take me away from my blindness.’ He raised €100,000 for the adventure and assembled his team: Simon O’Donnell, a rugby coach he knew through friends from Trinity College, and Inge Solheim, an experienced Norwegian polar guide and adventurer. Pollock’s girlfriend of three years, Simone George, cooked him a Christmas dinner before he left for the Antarctic in mid-December 2008.
At the halfway point, suffering from sleep deprivation, hunger, blisters and a twisted ankle, he sent me an audio report: ‘Sometimes I have hours of elation, when we’re working hard and skiing fast; but I know now that these are just the prelude to a low, when you can hardly be bothered to open your tent door.’
But he was proud that his blindness wasn’t slowing down his team, as he feared it might. ‘I found being on skis in the snow actually levelled the playing field,’ he said afterwards. ‘Some people found it really difficult that we were unable to talk to each other in this flat white landscape without any visual stimulation for 12-16 hours a day, whereas I’ve been locked in my own head since 1998. My blindness wasn’t an advantage, but it wasn’t a disadvantage either.’
In the end his team finished fifth (Cracknell and Fogle came second; a Norwegian team came first). We spoke by satellite phone when he reached the finish and he said, ‘I’m a hardcore adventurer, but I cried five times.’ (Later Cracknell also confessed that he ‘totally broke down’ during the trip.)
While his team-mates had their iPods to break up the days, Pollock, who needed his hearing, had lots of time to think. He decided to propose to George. He has been dating her since 2005 (when he asked her for salsa-dancing lessons in his kitchen). She is beautiful – slim and tall, with dark hair and light-green eyes, but Pollock has never seen her. ‘I’m pretty sure I know what she looks like. It’s weird. It would be so fascinating to compare my image of her to reality.’ He sat on his decision for nine months after returning from the South Pole, proposed in November 2009 and they were due to marry last August. But four weeks before their wedding, Pollock broke his back.
Within 12 hours George had flown from Dublin to England to the hospital. ‘I said to her at the start that she had a getout clause, even if it was just to take a week off, but she’s never left me.’ After seven months of operations and illness he was transferred to the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Dublin. George was by his bedside every morning at 8.30am to wash and dress him and take him to rehab, coming back after work to bring home-cooked meals instead of hospital food. When I went to visit him on the ward last June, he said, desperately, ‘We can’t go on like this – I don’t want her to be my carer, we need to get back to having a proper relationship.’
The change in Pollock was startling. His skin was pale and as he spoke he drummed his fingers on his thighs, once as thick as a cyclist’s, now the size of a child’s. At times he weakly flashed a smile, but that, too, was a shadow of his former grin. The independent adventurer, whose idea of a relaxing break was a skiing holiday, now needed his girlfriend to wheel him to the bathroom. Without funding to convert his Dublin townhouse into a wheelchair-friendly home and pay for a carer he was stuck on the ward.
Pollock is not a man to wait for help to come to him. He and George began researching radical treatment options and found an innovative centre in California called Project Walk. The rehabilitation centre, which has been open for 12 years, trains patients with spinal cord injuries using physical exercises that aim to reconnect the paralysed limb with the nervous system. It sounds pie-in-the-sky, but it has been the subject of two scientific papers, one by the University of California, that have proved that patients on the programme see gains in motor function and physical strength after six months of training. A businessman who met Pollock at a conference (in between expeditions Pollock worked as a motivational speaker) funded the trip. It came to just under £10,000.
In March 2011 Pollock and George flew to California. On the first day Pollock was made to lie on his back while a trainer moved his legs in a cycling motion. It was the first time he had done physiotherapy out of his wheelchair. When Bri Hamilton, a trainer from Project Walk, first met Pollock she was unsure how it would work with Pollock’s blindness. ‘Mark had a better physical awareness than many of our clients who can see. He is very dedicated and has a great group of family and friends who support him.’
O’Donnell flew out to learn the exercises and back in Dublin he has been training Pollock two to three hours every day, four or five days a week. O’Donnell holds Pollock’s locked knees into place as he performs squats (Pollock uses his arms to move his body, all the while trying to engage his leg muscles) or physically moves Pollock’s legs on a treadmill. O’Donnell’s dedication is touching: he has a full-time job and a young family but still trains Pollock 15 hours a week.
Pollock is at pains to emphasise how grateful he is to his friend: ‘He’s never let me down, ever.’ But in June last year he was struggling to keep his motivation high. ‘Sometimes when I’m on my way to training I find it overwhelming that I’m so far away from walking. I don’t want to be paralysed and I don’t want to be training really hard to be able to walk again – I just want to walk again.’ By November Pollock was able to stand for a few seconds without O’Donnell holding his knees in place. He was so excited he visited an offshoot of Project Walk, a charity called Standing Start, in Cambridge (somewhere he now aims to visit four times a year). There the trainer advised Pollock to introduce an intensive upper body routine to go with his leg exercises.
When we met again, at the beginning of January, Pollock looked happy and strong. The exercise regime had beefed up his arms, which were straining through his T-shirt, his skin was glowing and he was joking about a ‘wardrobe lady’ he had hired. ‘She told me all my clothes made me look like a 50-year-old businessman,’ he said, laughing. His huge smile was back, in no small part because he was home again – he finally moved in 18 months after the accident, after his friends had raised money to modify his house. They founded the Mark Pollock Trust and organised a series of races around the world from Belfast, London to the Dominican Republic. Almost 4,000 people, a lot of them strangers, took part and the Trust raised enough to pay for a lift (£12,000), a wetroom (£13,000) and to widen door frames in Pollock’s home. He also finally got funding from the council for two carers, or PAs as he prefers to call them, who work alternate days.
Now Phil or AJ get Pollock out of bed every morning at 8am, help him wash and change (‘we’re getting quicker and quicker in the mornings’) and at 9am drive him to training. Pollock can wheel himself around his house – he can operate the lift and knows where obstacles are – but out of his home he needs to be pushed everywhere. He cannot use a guide dog and push his chair at the same time; he finds the thought of an electric wheelchair with a stick too dangerous – ‘when I fell off the kerb using my stick when I could walk, that was one thing, but in a chair I could really hurt myself’ – and thinks the extra bulk of an electric wheelchair would only make life more difficult. After lunch he works on his website (he is relaunching his motivational speaking business) in a cafe in town. He likes to be surrounded by noise and people. ‘I think it’s a blind thing; I like to be somewhere where there is the possibility I might meet someone interesting.’ His computer is specially adapted with a program called JAWS that tells him where the cursor is. The software is also on his old Nokia phone (he needs buttons he can feel), which reads his text messages out to him. In the evenings George cooks – Thomasina Miers and Jamie Oliver books sit by the hob (Christmas presents from Pollock) – or they go out to a local pub with friends. Being back home in the centre of Dublin – rather than a hospital filled with elderly patients on the outskirts of town – has allowed him to start living as a 36-year-old man again.
Pollock has spent his life pushing boundaries – first attempting extreme challenges as a blind man, then the pioneering exercise treatment at Project Walk, something he still spends hours a day on, trying to move muscles his brain cannot control. But he also has an impatience to live in the present and to enjoy life as fully as he can. He knows that no matter how hard he tries he may never walk again, so since the accident he has been researching technology that might help him adapt and has discovered the concept of robotic legs, that he sees as an alternative to his wheelchair. A number of robotic companies have been developing hi-tech exoskeletons, or metal suits that encase the body with strong rods that support the legs and motorised hip and knee joints. They were initially developed to allow soldiers carry extremely heavy loads, but have now been adapted to help paraplegics to walk. Ekso Bionics, a company based in Berkeley, San Francisco, that makes robotic legs, agreed to let Pollock try its Ekso-suit. So far 60 people with spinal cord injuries have tested the device but Pollock is the first blind person to do so.
On January 31 he took his first steps since the accident. He was strapped into the suit and leant forward on to two crutches before the physiotherapist pushed a button to make him stand: ‘All the training I had been doing was important in that moment,’ he said afterwards. ‘My experiences of being unstable, of getting stronger and of being upright all combined in that single moment. It was incredible and I hadn’t even taken any steps yet.’ Tied to a moving pulley on the ceiling, in case he fell, Pollock had to transfer his weight on to his left side, at which point the physiotherapist pressed a button and the suit moved his right leg forward. Each step took about 15 seconds. In a video that George made, Pollock’s face is contorted with the effort of stabilising his body. But the physiotherapist was visibly impressed. Only 15 out of the 60 people had managed to walk with the suit on in their first session, he said, ‘and that’s when they can see what’s going on with their legs.’
A fortnight later a woman hit the headlines for becoming one of the first British people to own a robotic suit. Claire Lomas, 31, from Leicestershire, severed her spinal cord in a riding accident in 2006. Like Pollock she went to Project Walk and has continued the training, but when she saw a prototype of ReWalk, a similar device to the suit Pollock tried, at the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham last year she raised the £43,000 to buy it. She was fitted with her suit in February. ‘It is physically hard work and incredibly frustrating at times to get the technique right,’ she told The Sunday Telegraph, ‘but when I make progress, it gives me a fantastic feeling.’ Next week she will walk the London Marathon using her new legs.
Pollock said that the euphoria of taking his first robotic steps was hard to come down from. ‘It gave me hope that I might walk again.’ But the old debate about waiting for a cure versus living in the present resurfaced in his head. ‘Life isn’t about the future,’ he blogged on February 3. ‘It is about experiencing life as it happens. As the days roll by and my mind races with what might be in the future, I’m in danger of missing the experience of life outside spinal cord injury.’ The next day I receive a message from him: ‘Met an Irish guy over here. Paralysed 20 years ago but hardcore water/snow skier, hand biker [a bicycle powered by the hands rather than feet], camper and all round good lad.’ Buoyed with enthusiasm, Pollock was out surfing the next day for the first time since his injury. ‘New hands and knees style,’ he tweeted. ‘Awesome.’
By Jessica Salter