Mark Pollock: stepping forward for those with spinal injuries
Technology is playing a huge part in increasing Irishman Marks Pollock’s chances of recovery from paralysis. Visiting him at his home in Dublin recently, he made what I can only describe as a spectacular entrance, when a section of the ceiling in his living room opened and he descended into the room from a lift above to greet me.
A new gadget, but the same old Mark: positive, and driven as ever—an amazing achievement for a man who lost his sight to illness, and then the use of his legs.
The Mark Pollock Trust was set up initially by friends of Mark to aid in his recovery, after the blind adventurer suffered a fall—a tragic accident that left him paralysed below the stomach. Now the trust has extended its goals. According to the trusts website, MarkPollockTrust.org, they “believe that there is a cure for spinal cord injuries out there if we have enough of the right people with the will to make it happen.”
Mark explained that they now have a three-pronged approach to fulfilling their mission.
“I’m trying to speak more about spinal cord injuries. Put it on a global stage, outside the normal communities who talk about spinal cord injuries,” he said.
Mark is involved in an initiative from the World Economic Forum called Young Global Leaders, and it is through groups such as this and through corporate leaders that he plans to raise awareness of spinal injuries.”I’m trying to put spinal cord injuries out there with leaders around the world to get them interested in the issue,” he said.
The second aspect is fundraising through RunInTheDark.org, which Mark explains is an event that’s coming up in November. The third aspect is his own physical recuperation, which centres on walking in an Ekso-skeleton robotic suit, talking to scientists and engineers, and training on a daily basis to see if he personally can recover from his injuries.
For all of Marks adventure races to date, such as his travels up huge mountains, or to the South Pole, he says they were about pushing the boundaries: “They were races, they were athletic pursuits, I was an adventurer in that world where, as now, this feels more like being an explorer…we are entering into the realms of the unknown.”
Mark says: “I am now consistently the quickest walker in my Ekso-skeleton. In 60 minutes, we can cover 2,800 steps. Whenever we break the device, we get on to the engineers and explain which piece is broken. They then redesign and fix it, and thus that element is improved for the next cycle. So in part we are using the device, and in part we are feeding back to make the device better for all the other people who are going to be using it. I feel good by pushing the boundaries of my Ekso-skeleton; that we are contributing to the development.”
The Change Since the Accident
All the goals Mark was aiming for before the paralysis were largely personal ones.”Now, I’m trying to help find a cure for spinal cord injury, it’s not like going to the South Pole, no set destination…there may be no answer for this one, though I suppose the difference is that the stuff I do every day is not necessarily going to result in a win for me. But I do have more of a desire to contribute to that search for a cure for spinal cord injury, because I’m very aware that most of the people I lay beside in the spinal unit, both in England and Ireland, and such people I have met around the world, just don’t have the backing that I’ve got, the ability to go out and fundraise.”
The Things People don’t talk About
“Unlike blindness, I thought the paralysis was going to be bad…I really do find the paralysis much more impactful,” Mark explained. “With the paralysis there is the stuff we don’t talk about: the bladder and bowl control, sexual function, the heart disease, the circulation problems, bone density problems, pressure sores…and that’s just on the health side!” he says. Mark then added the accessibility issues, the drugs he has to take, the risk of infections, needing carers, and management issues. “It’s just a much, much bigger deal than just not being able to feel your legs…I didn’t count on all those secondary problems. That stuff is wearing,” he says.
Mark spent 18 months in hospital after the accident that paralysed him. “That’s one thing I didn’t get post-blindness: I’m pretty sure I was depressed, which I never was after blindness. There were days that I didn’t have that drive and resolve to go on—I was just getting through the days. I have much more of an appreciation for how people struggle and can’t just snap out of it. Getting out, filling my days with interesting, meaningful things, having the right people around me, the awfulness of paralysis isn’t 100 per cent of my day. Trying to find a cure, whilst linked to the paralysis, is a much more positive endeavour,” he says.
“I feel better when I’m walking and standing in the robot—I feel like I have done something meaningful when I speak with the engineers. This is my time, I’m not too old to do this, I’m not too old for the physical exertion, I’ve got the team around me, it’s almost like a second wave of the feelings I got from sport…”
In parting, Mark says: “I know guys who are paralysed 10 and 20 years who decided to focus on getting on with their lives, and have great and interesting lives. I may well have done the same, if the timing was different.”
Run in the Dark 2013: Funding the Search for a cure
This is the third year of the Run in the Dark event. This year’s Irish events will be held in Belfast, Dublin and Cork. The UK events are in Manchester and London. Smaller events will occur across the globe from Sydney and Dubai, New York and Toronto, to Boston. More and more people are taking up the challenge and organising their own local events.
For more information how you can help organise an event, visit MarkPollockTust.org
By Martin Murphy