Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 24 September 2014

Incredible bionic man: 'My ultimate quest in life is to be able to walk again'

A Co Down adventurer hopes his £120,000 bionic suit will provide a breakthrough in paralysis research

True champion: Mark Pollock and (left) with his girlfriend Simone George pressEyeFighting back: Mark with his robotic legs helped by trainer and South Pole teammate Simon O'Donnell and (below) in hospital after falling out of a window and breaking his back in 2010 David Conachy
True champion: Mark Pollock and (left) with his girlfriend Simone George pressEyeFighting back: Mark with his robotic legs helped by trainer and South Pole teammate Simon O'Donnell and (below) in hospital after falling out of a window and breaking his back in 2010 David Conachy
Mark Pollock with his girlfriend Simone George
Mark Pollock with his girlfriend Simone George
Mark Pollock in hospital after falling out of a window and breaking his back in 2010
Mark Pollock in hospital after falling out of a window and breaking his back in 2010

Mark Pollock will have taken 400,000 steps by the end of the summer as he aims to make a major contribution in the quest to find a cure for paralysis.

They are steps that no other paralysed man in the world has yet taken and they have been made possible by state-of-the-art bionic engineering and technology.

Northern Ireland’s amazing blind adventurer and athlete — the little boy from Holywood, Co Down who was inspired by explorers such as Sir Ernest Shackleton and Captain Robert Scott as he grew up — is a recognised champion for paralysed people all over the world today.

The 300,000 steps he’s done so far have been made possible by the use of a £118,000 bionic suit of legs, known as the Ekso suit, after the American company which makes it.

That a blind man is taking these steps adds an extra dimension to the latest — and undoubtedly the biggest — challenge that drives Mark (38) onwards.

He has been the focus of an unique experiment that has combined the latest work in exercise, technology and science, when he recently spent three months in California walking in his "legs", as he refers to the Ekso suit, while wearing a neuromodulator which sends electro-stimulus pulses from his brain down his legs. Previously, the neuromodulator has been physically implanted into other paralysed people – with encouraging results.

Mark is at pains to suggest that he doesn't want to give other paralysed people false hope, but back in his home town to support Ekso Bionics on a visit to Stormont, Mark is looking great and feeling good.

"We are currently awaiting for the data to be analysed, so I can't say too much at this stage, but I can honestly say that I can't see how doing all of these steps wouldn't have an impact," he says.

"Regardless of what was going on inside my body, I do know that I feel psychologically better and even the paralysed bits that I can't feel also somehow feel better.

"It's got to the stage where, if I don't use the legs, I feel different and it's not how I want to feel."

Mark brings the same determination to his daily exercise using the suit and his other physical training – he's fortunate enough to have his own suit, which was bought for him by the Mark Pollock Trust, set up to fund the research and pioneering work that he and his fiancee, Simone George, do – that he did to his other immense physical challenges.

Recently, he's been upping his physical workrate, doing two hard training sessions a day at Trinity College Dublin, where the couple live.

"It's important to say that I have accepted my injury, accepted that daily life for me is in and out of the wheelchair and there's a life to be led in a wheelchair," adds Mark.

"But running along with that is a thought that there might be chance of me getting out of the wheelchair, or that I might contribute to finding a cure."

His story of repeated triumph over great personal adversity and physical endurance is the stuff of a Hollywood movie script.

In spite of being blind in one eye from the age of five, he was a determined and gifted schoolboy, before completely losing his sight at 22. That didn't stop him excelling at sports and becoming a Commonwealth silver medalist rower, or becoming the first blind man to undertake a myriad of adventures, including competing the South Pole Race in 2010.

Life dealt him a second cruel blow when he was left paralysed after falling from a window in England while on holiday.

He spent 18 months being rehabilitated at Stoke Mandevlle and National Rehabilitation Hospital in Dublin.

In spite of Mark's physical condition, his relationship with Simone, a consultant litigation lawyer and advocate, is a partnership of equals; they are both highly intelligent and driven in their aim to combat paralysis.

Simone recalls some of the dark days when Mark lay recovering in hospital in England.

"Mark is," she searches for words, "well, at the heart of it, he's just a tremendously good guy, he's very, very warm and so kind, and that's to everyone he meets in all walks of life.

"Sometimes, I wonder how he came to be the way he is. I remember when we were in the ward and I was sitting there with his mother and father and we would be completely wrecked with it all, and – there were times I could have killed him – he would just say something like, 'Well, isn't it lovely that we are all here together'. And I would just look at his parents and say, 'What did you do to raise him like this' and they would say that they did absolutely nothing, it was just the way he came out."

Mark has also been inspired by paralysed actor Christopher Reeve, who died 10 years ago and had been a tireless campaigner to find a way of walking again.

"There was a time, some years ago, that if you had an injury like I had, you died. When I was lying in hospital, I learned about Christopher Reeve," says Mark.

"What he did for the debate on spinal injury was immense and, with his intelligence and celebrity, he got paralysis on a global stage and moved the field on hugely. For me, I had a hunch in the first year that it just didn't make sense not to move my legs; as my lower half of my body hasn't been detached from my upper half, some nerves are still intact. It didn't make sense to forget the lower part of my body.

"What I've learnt since then is that, if I just sit in the wheelchair, that my tendons tighten up, my toes curl and my muscles rapidly start to disappear.

"I figured sitting down in a wheelchair can't be good for you. It's not good for anyone to be sitting down. So I thought that if I found someone who worked with paralysed people to get them out of their chairs, at the bare minimum I would maximise whatever leg muscles were still working and get some working again and keep myself in a good shape.

"What I've been fortunate enough to access in America and some places in England, others haven't for years, as the paralysed parts of the body aren't really looked after.

"It's a miracle in itself that I'm here, but I'm interested in what happens next, how we go from being in wheelchairs to getting out of them."

It was through a chance meeting in a hairdressing salon in Bangor that Mark got to be the first Northern Ireland man to try out the Ekso suit.

His mother, Barbara, was talking to the best friend of Cathy McStravick, the mother of Patrick McStravick, the manufacturing genius from Ekso Bionics, who left Bangor more than 20 years ago to live and work in California.

After a bit of kindly maternal intervention, Mark's desire to try out the legs was made possible.

Patrick recalls: "I called Mark around Christmas 2011 and said, 'Mark, I heard that you are trying to walk again and I really believe that I can make you walk again if you come over to California.'

"Mark and Simone travelled over to California, where he tried out the Ekso suit in 2012 and loved it and from that began an exciting collaboration."

Patrick firmly believes that Ireland, north and south, could well become a centre of excellence for bionic technology and he hopes that he can get universities excited at teaching the technology to students.

"As I told Edwin Poots, the Health Minister, my dream is to – it might be a little far-fetched – is to get several of these suits into Ireland, north or south. We build the robots in California and ship them all over the world. We are sending more to Europe, so it would make sense some day in the future to make them here."

It is a horrible irony that there could not have been a better person to tried out the combination of Ekso suit and neuromodulator than Mark and it's not lost on Simone. "It's a hideous thing to say, as you would never wish what has happened to him on anybody, so it's awful, in a way, that he is so well-equipped for this. It's very sad, but the reality of it is that he is," she says.

"He does two training sessions a day, helped by his South Pole team-mate, Simon O'Donnell, who was there for us when he was in hospital. Mark and I can't talk about Simon without crying, he's just wonderful."

The couple are aware that many people who are fascinated by Mark's story would love to hear wedding bells, but it's not something that overly concerns them.

They met through a legal colleague of hers as Mark wanted to learn how to dance and she, a lover of Latino music and dance, helped to teach him.

There were friends for a long time before they dated. Both are protective of how their relationship is portrayed in the media.

Simone says: "I think the media sometimes overplays that the reasons why we do this is down to romance and our relationship. What's come out recently is that a lot of people saying that I've been very loyal to him. I'm absolutely not with Mark out of loyalty.

"The reason why Mark and I are so committed to this is that's so bloody exciting. It's really possible to do. I think that if people really put all their time and energy into this, it could really happen within our lifetime."

Mark agreeing, adds: "This is all still in the exploration stage, I don't know how far or close we are to the ultimate goal to finding a cure. But what we are doing is making major steps into learning what is out there and what links need to be made between different disciplines and putting those collaborations in place.

"Before I was an adventurer-athlete, whereas with this quest, I'm feel much more like the Shackleton and Scotts and those explorers from 100 years ago, exploring what is possible in the cure for spinal injury."

Running in the dark to help find cure

  • As darkness falls on Wednesday, November 12 this year and people settle down in front of their televisions, thousands of others will pull on their running shoes, red flashing armbands and head for the door as part of a living light show flowing through the streets of around 30 cities worldwide.
  • The Life Style Sports Run in the Dark is being organised by the Mark Pollock Trust as part of its mission to find and connect people around the world to fast-track a cure for paralysis.
  • There will be five official locations for the 5km and 10km runs — the Stormont Estate, Belfast, as well as Dublin, Cork, London and Manchester, plus pop-up events in cities worldwide.
  • Money raised by the event will go towards the trust’s work in helping discover breakthrough scientific advances in the search for a cure for spinal cord injuries, as well as supporting Mark’s exploration for a paralysis cure that will benefit him and the global spinal cord injured community.
  • For more details, visit www.markpollocktrust.org or www.runinthedark.org.

Mark’s amazing list of achievements

  •  Mark Pollock (38) — adventurer, athlete, rower, kayaker, author and international motivational speaker — was born in Holywood, Co Down and is the son of Johnny Pollock and Barbara Carson and brother of Emma and uncle to her two children.
  • He attended Belfast Royal Academical Institution and studied business and economics at Trinity College Dublin.
  • At the age of five — having experienced problems with both eye retinas since birth — he lost the sight in his right eye, before going fully blind at the age of 22.
  • A talented rower, Mark represented Northern Ireland at the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester and won bronze and silver.
  • Mark also ran a 156-mile ultra-marathon in the Gobi Desert, kayaked from Wales to Ireland and ran a marathon in the Himalayas.
  • In 2009, he became the first blind man to reach the South Pole in the Amundsen Omega 3 South Pole Race as part of a three-man team for Ireland, which included fellow TCD student and rugby coach Simon O’Donnell, and Inge Solheim, an experienced Norwegian polar guide.
  • His team came in fifth in the gruelling race, which was won by a Norwegian entry, with the British team of adventurer Ben Fogle, Olympic rower Ben Cracknell and doctor Ed Coats coming in second.
  • However, just weeks after he returned, he was in England after his latest adventure — becoming the first blind man to co-skipper a boat in the Round Ireland Yacht Race — when he sustained a serious head injury and was left paralysed from the waist down after somehow falling 25ft out of a bedroom window.
  • Mark’s also the successful author of Making It Happen and runs the Mark Pollock Trust, which funds research into finding a cure for spinal-cord injury.

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