Life

Mark Pollock still running against the odds with search to find paralysis 'cure'

Adventurer and athlete Mark Pollock has overcome several major obstacles in his life and he now aims to overcome his greatest yet: paralysis. Michael Jackson spoke to the Holywood native about his journey to find a cure

Mark Pollock is helped by his assistant as he walks using the Ekso Bionics robotic exoskeleton at Trinity College Dublin Picture: Peter Macdiarmid/Mark Pollock Trust
Michael Jackson

WHEN Mark Pollock lost his sight in 1998 he didn't believe that he could lead a normal life. But such was the drive and determination of the Hollywood, Co Down, native that he subsequently went on to become a two-time Commonwealth rowing medallist and, in 2009, the first blind man to take part in a competitive race to the South Pole.

However, Mark's life took another dramatic turn in 2010 when a fall left him paralysed from the waist down. Despite suffering horrendous injuries – including fracturing his skull and breaking his back in three places when he fell on to a patio from the open window of a house – even that incident didn't stop Mark in his tracks: he is now totally immersed in the search for a 'cure' for paralysis and spinal chord injuries.

This November people from Belfast and beyond will be aiding Mark in this undertaking by participating in the global Run in the Dark marathon which aims to help make the impossible possible.

Many people find it difficult to overcome certain setbacks in their lives, but when Mark lost his sight in one eye at young age it was precisely that adversity that helped him develop as a rower.

“I always had a drive to compete but I wasn’t really allowed to play any of the ball sports that are offered in schools,” he tells me. “Having the drive to compete and not being allowed to – I suppose you put twice as much effort in when you have to go a different route.”

Although he had partially lost his sight during his formative years, completely losing it when aged just 22 presented a much more difficult challenge for Mark, who even gave up rowing, a passion since his school days at the Royal Belfast Academical Institution.

“I had fallen out of rowing. After blindness I didn’t really think it was going to be possible,” he says. “The big thing about the blindness was when I lost my sight I lost my identity. I suddenly went from this person who was at Trinity College Dublin, about to graduate; I was going to start a job in investment banking; I was rowing competitively, and then suddenly I was this blind person stuck at home with no independence.”

Despite being faced with such difficulty, Mark’s determination would eventually see him win silver and bronze for Northern Ireland at the 2002 Commonwealth Rowing Championships. Following that, he completed six marathons in seven days in the Gobi Desert, and completed a race to the South Pole.

Mark’s feats may be remarkable but he explains that they were simply a way for him to feel like himself again.

“It was about rebuilding my identity,” he says. "The rowing was really about trying to feel normal again and trying to rebuild my identity but it came from a low base in the days, weeks, and months after blindness.

“The backdrop became more and more extraordinary, culminating with the South Pole trip, but all I was trying to do was do what I had done as a 12-year-old while rowing up and down the Lagan, that was to feel normal competing. It wasn’t an exercise in being extraordinary – it was an exercise in being ordinary.”

Overcoming blindness to compete in such events may seem like the apogee of personal endeavour for those who are not aware of Mark’s story, but in the years since he has become paralysed he has determinedly been looking for a cure for paralysis, and he is personally involved in a number of different treatment programmes which have seen significant development.

“There are three blocks, or circles, as I like to think of them,” he says. "There’s a whole strand in aggressive physical theory that tries to see what remains intact [after an incident that causes paralysis], see how you can look after the body, and see what you’ve got left.

“We kind of worked on that originally out of the normal rehab process; working on benches, crawling, standing – all that stuff. Then I added in the second circle which was robotic legs made by Ekso Bionics in San Francisco. I was doing the physical work then the robotics came in to allow me to stand and walk.”

“That wasn’t going to fix it on its own so we added in the electrical stimulation of the spine and a drug and that’s actually working on the nervous system. There are loads of old technologies that contract the muscles directly but this is actually working on the nervous system.”

The interventions may help improve the quality of life of those with paralysis and Mark believes they will culminate, in time, in a cure.

“We expect that there will be more interventions – biological, pharmacological, technological and there will be a cocktail put together to ultimately find a cure,” he says.

As well as testing new interventions, Mark has also set up the Mark Pollock Trust charity which funds and highlights new research.

“We’re funding a research scientist in Trinity College Dublin and maintaining a collaboration with UCLA,” Mark, himself a TCD graduate, enthuses. “We’re hoping to expand the research out to other people and ultimately to get it out of research stage and into the clinics so that other people who don’t have the support that I’ve got can access these different interventions.

The charity’s annual Run in the Dark marathon is taking place in Belfast and more than 50 other cities around the world on November 16. Mark hopes that the event will inspire people to get involved in the search for a cure.

“What’s really important is that we make sure that everyone who is running understands that their money is helping to fund the science and the mission that we’ve set out for the trust,” he says.

“Part of their entry goes to the cause, not just money that we raise on top. We’re now trying to turn those people into fundraisers as well.”

The charity aims to raise €5 million by 2020, a goal which Mark says will open more funding opportunities.

“What we want to do with the money is to create the connections to tap into that €80 billion research fund in Europe and much, much more in US, so when I look at it as an individual it’s a massive target but in the grand scheme of things it’s a small target.”

:: For more information about The Mark Pollock Trust see www.markpollocktrust.org; to participate in the Run in the Dark on November 16 or for more information see www.runinthedark.org

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