If Ireland has a real life, everyday Superman, it has to be Mark Pollock, who is continuing Christopher Reeve’s quest for answers to spinal cord injury.
Completely blind since the age of 22, when the retina in his left eye detached, Pollock has gone on to push the boundaries of possible. The Holywood, Co. Down native has run a 156-mile ultra-marathon in the Gobi Desert, kayak from Wales to Ireland, run a marathon in the Himalaya Mountains, and complete the Amundsen Omega 3 South Pole Race, a grueling multi-day ski trek in Antarctica, among many other athletic endeavors.
Then, in July 2010, a 25-foot fall from a second-story window changed everything for Mark again. With his spine broken in three places and his skull fractured, Mark was left paralyzed from the waist down. In addition, he was physically and emotionally drained after weeks of surgeries and infections.
Mark speaks readily about the despair he experienced in the weeks and months following the accident, as he struggled to regain his health and grappled with his new physical condition. But the thing about Mark, the thing that’s abundantly clear when you meet him or learn about all that he has done in the last four years, is that he’s a bigger-picture person, full of determination and deep inner strength, and supported by his friends and loved ones. Even the worst of circumstances won’t keep him down for long.
As he once trained for marathons, his new race is to bring greater attention to spinal cord injuries and to be a catalyst for collaboration in the often disparate fields of science, physiology and technology.
The Mark Pollock Trust was founded in 2010, shortly after his accident. It is headed by Mark himself and by Piers White, an old friend and former Trinity College, Dublin rowing teammate of Mark’s with a background in business and the non-profit sector. Also working with the trust is Mark’s fiancée, Simone George, who has been by his side since before the accident and who has since taken on a major role in his recovery, researching and connecting with specialists around the world.
Earlier this month I met with Mark and Piers, who were in New York for a few days to attend the American Ireland Fund’s annual gala and further preparations for the New York arm of the trust’s annual Run in the Dark fundraiser, which takes place in cities around the world each November. (And is, by all accounts, a lot of fun.)
They were just wrapping up two months in California, where Mark had been working with a team of scientists at UCLA to train in his Ekso Bionics robotic legs (he was the first person in the world to own a pair) and measure their effect on his own legs. The US, they both agreed, is playing an increasingly important role in their work.
As Mark and Piers explained it, the trust has three overlapping areas of focus. The first and foremost is to promote research and collaboration among scientists studying paralysis and spinal cord injuries. The other two, which support this general goal and also defray some of the costs of Mark’s therapies and participation in studies, are his public speaking engagements, through which he spreads awareness and motivates others to foment change in their own fields, and the worldwide Run in the Dark, which kicked off in 2011.
At the heart of it, Mark said, it’s all about “getting people to do more than they think is possible.
“Our mission is to find and connect people around the world to fast-track a cure for paralysis,” Mark said. “To bring the physiologists together with the technologists, the robotics people and the scientists, and to get this collaboration going. The journey is taking us from Ireland to England to the US.”
They also act as a force for collaboration between similar foundations, particularly Wings for Life in Europe and the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation in the US, on the board of which Mark and Simone both sit.
Christopher Reeve, the highly admired "Superman" actor, who was left a quadriplegic after a horseback riding accident in 1995, went on to become a fierce advocate for paralysis and spinal cord research. He has been especially important to Mark, who hopes to carry on the torch left burning by Reeve, who died in 2004, and his wife Dana, who died in 2007.
“Conventional wisdom about spinal cord injuries has changed so much because of a few key people,” he said.
“In the 40s, if you had a spinal injury it was a death sentence. Then a man named Dr. Ludwig Guttmann set up the first spinal unit in the world, at Stoke Mandeville in Buckinghamshire, where I was after my accident. His idea was that people dying wasn’t good enough, so he did more than people thought was possible back then by turning spinal cord injury from a death sentence into a manageable injury – getting people out of hospital beds and into wheelchairs. He was also the one who founded the Paralympic Games, so he was a real ground-breaker back then.
“Since then, people have been able to lead long, meaningful lives in wheelchairs, but there hasn’t been a next breakthrough,” he added.
“Then we started reading about Christopher Reeve and his foundation, how they were trying to take things to the next step of getting out of the wheelchair. He was right on the cutting edge of the search for a cure for paralysis, and a lot of the stuff that I’m benefiting from now, a lot of the things that are starting to turn into reality, were pioneered by him.”
Mark said that as he was recovering in Stoke Mandeville, it became clear to him that both he and others suffering from spinal cord injuries would be stuck without the Dr. Guttmanns and Christopher Reeves of the world.
“I’m following not in his footsteps but in his tracks,” he affirmed. “And hopefully we can keep what he was doing moving forward.”
To do that, he and Piers believe, will take a global effort.
“It’s going to have to be a global solution to a global problem,” Piers said. “And a lot of that is now happening in America so we’re excited to be making some inroads into contributing.”
A key part of this is the Run in the Dark, which is already well on its way to becoming a global collaboration. It started in 2011 with 3,500 people participating in Dublin, Cork, Belfast and London. 2012 saw 8,000 people participating worldwide, then 11,000 in 2013, and they’re hoping for 15,000 this year across a number of different cities.
There have already been versions in cities on all continents, including, New York, Auckland, Sydney, Melbourne, Moscow, Johannesburg, Singapore, Paris, Belgium, Washington, Boston, Rio, San Francisco and everywhere in between. There was even a runner who participated in Antarctica, at the South Pole, with a blindfold on since it was bright 24/7.
The events, 5k – 10k fun runs, kick off at 7:30 pm local time on the same day in each location, sweeping across the world like New Year's Eve.
They speak to both his blindness and the great determination with which he approached athletic competitions and now faces his current challenge.
Mark agreed that the same sort of drive and focus has been equally helpful since the accident.
“Coming from a sport background, it feels right for me to have a lofty goal – which in this case is to walk again – and to put intense training steps in place for that. So in some ways there’s a natural crossover between what I did before, training for these events, and what I do now.
“There’s the vision, the planning and then putting together an amazing team. All the things I learned in sport are very helpful to this endeavor.”
To learn more, visit markpollocktrust.org