Blind and Paralyzed, an Adventurer Takes New Steps

By Azadeh Ansari, CNN
Updated 7:49 AM ET, Fri October 9, 2015


Like many young boys growing up, Mark Pollock dreamed of being Superman. Like his childhood comic hero, action and adventure have filled Pollock’s life, but also tragedy. He is blind, and an accident as an adult, left him paralyzed. But he never let his physical setbacks stop him.

Eye problems plagued his young adult life until as he was about to graduate from Trinity College in Dublin at age 22, when an unsuccessful operation on his left eye left Pollock permanently blind in both eyes.

Pollock refused to sit on the sidelines of life. A few months after he was blinded, Pollock began to explore the possibilities within his new reality. He worked, and went on to complete a Master’s in business studies. But it was through sports that he found the possibilities within his own life again.

In 2002, Pollock won bronze and silver medals in rowing at the Commonwealth Games. The following year, he raced six marathons in seven days across China’s Gobi Desert. He participated in an Ironman triathlon in Switzerland in 2006, and in 2008, made history as the first blind man to race to the South Pole.

But tragedy struck again in the summer of 2010. He fell 25 feet from a second-story window, and landed on the concrete below. Pollock does not recall details of the incident.

“I fractured my skull, broke my back and the damage to my spinal cord left me paralyzed from the waist down,” Pollock said. “At the time, people who found me lying on the concrete thought I was dead. Even doctors predicted I was going to die.”

But luckily, he had a very strong support system of loved ones. “I’ve been extraordinarily fortunate to be surrounded by people who want to go on the journey with me, through all the ups and downs,” said Pollock. “People I’ve relied on are generally the people who want to be there along the way, not those who are being forced to be.”

Now 39, Pollock wants to be a voice of change to help “fast track” a cure for paralysis. Working with doctors in America, Russia and Ireland, he says researchers have already made significant strides in the field of spinal cord injuries.

Doctors are working on the technology of placing electrodes over the spinal cord, and by doing this; doctors were able to stimulate the nerve cells which survived the injury. Pollock was able to take voluntary control of his leg muscles, stand upright and take thousands of steps during a five-day test training session, UCLA doctors reported.

“Walking in the exoskeleton robot and working with incredible scientists from around the world, that’s the exciting and easy bit. It’s the impact on the day-to-day mundane things like getting up in the morning or taking a shower that are difficult,” Pollock said. “The lack of overall independence and lack of dignity is tough.”


Mark Polluck

Despite the setbacks, Pollock cannot be stopped. Through his foundation, he travels the world as a motivational speaker to help raise awareness on paralysis.

“It’s about collaboration,” Pollock said. “To make the good research and innovations available to the masses, scientists, industry leaders, foundations and the public have to join forces.”


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