12 Dec 2016

Mark Pollock: Look To The Future

  • General Interest

Former blind South Pole adventurer, now exploring a cure for paralysis through global collaboration at Mark Pollock Trust (www.markpollocktrust.org).

Mark Pollock has had three lives. There was the life before blindness, the life after blindness and before the paralysis, and now the blindness and the paralysis. Mark had problems with both eyes from birth; “I was very short-sighted and had weak retinas. I wore thick glasses, and was unable to play any contact sports.” He lost the sight in one eye at five, and aged 11 developed a cataract in his good eye. When they removed the cataract he no longer needed glasses.

Although the ban on contact sports remained, it was not limiting in terms of satisfying Mark’s desire for competition. It just required flexibility. Mark took up sailing instead, and then started rowing. He rowed first at school in Belfast and for Ireland as a junior. Then he rowed for Trinity College Dublin and continued to row for Ireland.

Life was good for Mark then, he was about to take finals in business and economics, and had a job lined up in London. “I was training for the annual University Boat Race between Trinity and UCD when I started noticing my sight was blurring around the edges. Suspecting a detached retina I went to Belfast for a check-up, then to Manchester for an operation. I had a second operation, but my sight was gone.” Mark had gone suddenly and completely blind. Mark was unable to take his finals and instead went home to his family. “I felt great uncertainty. I had lost my identity. I wasn’t in Trinity. I wasn’t taking my finals or going to London, and I was no longer a rower. I was catapulted back to my bedroom, heavy under the weight of biases of what blind people can and can’t do.”

After recuperation Mark focused on retraining. He completed a computer course, got a guide dog and learned to walk with a white stick. Within a year, he returned to Dublin, and managed to live on his own. He then completed a masters degree at the Smurfit Business School, and within three years of becoming blind was back rowing, winning a silver and bronze medal at the Commonwealth Games for Northern Ireland.

Those first four years were all about rebuilding and from 2002 Mark began building up a speaking career, teaching motivation to clients, and tackling bigger and better endurance races. “I had eight years of adventuring and did six marathons in a week in the Gobi Desert, marathons at the North Pole and Everest as well as completed an Ironman in Switzerland. And, my blindness fed into my perspective on resilience, leadership and collaboration.” On the tenth anniversary of his blindness, Mark set himself a new challenge when he decided to enter the first race to the South Pole in a century.

“When I was talking to people about this race they were excited. They were fascinated with Antarctica and the South Pole and it wasn’t about the blindness. It just felt like this race had something for everyone to get behind.” On having completed the 200km acclimatisation and 800km race, a 43 day expedition, Mark became the first blind man to reach the Pole on foot.

In 2010, three weeks before he was due to marry his fiancee Simone George, Mark was attending the Henley Royal Regatta when he fell from a second-storey window onto the ground below. He woke in intensive care in the Royal Berks Hospital in Reading and was later transferred to Stoke Mandeville for rehabilitation. By that stage it was clear Mark was paralysed from his stomach down. He had the use of his arms, but was facing the prospect of being confined to a wheelchair. He went through a see-saw of emotions. “When I looked ahead, and saw myself blind in a wheelchair, I felt broken. But over time I began dealing with it and exploring ways in which I could maximise my chances of recovery.” Mark spent 16 months in hospital and during that time he began to explore the current and potential avenues of recovery available to someone with a spinal cord injury.

“If all of the health messaging suggests that it’s good to be fit for an able-bodied person then it just did not make sense that we should just forget about the paralysed parts of my body and never exercise them again.” Mark travelled to the United States to take part in Project Walk, an exercise-based program which promotes physical activity after paralysis. And then to Prime Physio in England for a similar programme. He progressed the intervention through the use of robotic legs in 2012. “Physical exercise was a big step forward, most people don’t even have access to that but the robotic legs were off  the scale. I realised that pursuing the exercise and walking in the robot is good but it’s not going to provide a cure.”

Seeking to combine scientific progressions in spinal cord recovery and physiological interventions, Mark connected with Dr. Reggie Edgerton of  University of  California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Over the last 30 years, Dr. Edgerton has been perfecting a regime of stimulating the nervous system by a process known as neuromodulation. And, alongside recently published results of  neuromodulation in humans, Edgerton designed a 3 month study for Mark combining electrical stimulation, anti-depressant drugs and Mark’s robotic legs which they completed last year. “As we learn about different interventions out there, I think of a Venn diagram with an overlap of physical exercise, robotics and some kind of scientific intervention. Reggie and his team have provided the scientific input with the electrical stimulation of the spinal cord in combination with the pharmacology.”

Having spent much time in the physiology and anatomy labs in Trinity over the years, Mark noticed similarities in the set-up, operations and ethos of the research labs in UCLA and is working on creating a collaboration between Trinity and UCLA. Trinity has played an important role throughout his journey. “I used the facilities as an undergraduate in the Boat Club and as a graduate I trained there for my ultra-marathons and Antarctic expedition. I now use the Trinity Sports Centre weekly for my rehabilitation training, so for me, an academic link up to allow research to be furthered in Trinity seemed like a natural progression.” With the wealth of expertise across faculties and the range of  both research and sports facilities available, Mark believes Trinity can greatly contribute to the research. “The project is evolving. It’s by no means there yet, but the conversations are happening.”

It is true that finding a cure has proven impossible to this point in history but it is also a fact that human history is made up over and over again of  accounts of  the impossible made possible through human endeavour. And, that is why at the Mark Pollock Trust we are on a mission to find and connect people around the world who are prepared to disregard the impossible in order to fast track a cure for paralysis.

Follow Mark on Twitter @markpollock or learn more at www.markpollocktrust.org.

First Printed: Summer 2015