Mark Pollock vividly remembers the day in 2014 he was able to feel his legs beneath him again for the first time since becoming paralysed four years earlier.
He was pioneering a combination of therapeutic technologies – electrical stimulation of the spinal cord and a robotics – with dramatic results.
“I was able to feel my legs underneath me, feel the meat of the muscles around the bones in my skeleton, and then, over time, as I walked with the robot simulator turned on, I was able to voluntarily move my legs.”
The more Mark moved, the more the intelligent robot reduced the work its motors were doing to move his knees and hips. Eventually, his heart rate got up to a normal running training zone and the muscle mass started to come back in his legs.
“It felt like this was the start of something that might turn into meaningful therapy, perhaps a cure,” he explains.
Mark has made this his life’s mission and his resilience at coping with adversity has seen him become an inspirational speaker, who will share his story at this year’s Global Education and Skills Forum.
Courage against the odds
“Sometimes we choose challenges and sometimes they choose us – and what we decide to do about it is what counts,” says Mark, who helps organisations and individuals achieve more than they could ever think possible.
Mark faced two tragedies in his life, which have left him unable to climb out of bed in the morning without effort and assistance.
When he was just 22, on the Irish national rowing team and about to graduate from university, he went blind. Then, 12 years later, he fell from an upstairs window at a friend’s house – becoming paralysed from the waist down.
Rather than being defeated by these circumstances, Mark has changed them from limitations into opportunities.
Modern day pioneers
His response to blindness as an adult was to throw himself into competitive sport, something he already excelled at. This included becoming the first blind man to race to the South Pole, and to co-skipper a boat in the Round Ireland Yacht Race.
After his paralysis, which initially kept him in hospital for 16 months, his desire to explore new places turned into a quest to explore new technologies to improve his circumstances.
He had always been inspired by famous explorers, such as the Earnest Shackletons and Amelia Earharts of the world, but his heroes today are scientific pioneers.
“They are the scientists like Reggie Edgerton, who is pioneering electrical stimulation research, people who have built exo-bionic robots – these people are doing stuff that’s never been done before. They’re outliers. They’re the explorers in my world,” he explains.
The power of robotics
After leaving hospital he did everything he could to access research and find people at the cutting edge of science and technology who could help him.
And in January 2012, in San Francisco, he stood up and walked for the first time since his accident with the help of robotic legs.
“It opened up this world of technology and the blindness didn’t seem to be a factor that was going to prevent me from using it,” he says.
Next, he brought together two distinct groups in California – one in Los Angeles working on electrical stimulation of the spinal cord, and a robotics team from San Francisco.
While the robot moved his legs, the electrical stimulation “supercharged” his nervous system, to make connections between his brain and muscles – and enable voluntary movement.
Accessible to all
Despite the breakthrough, much more needs to happen before such therapies are widely available for the 500,000 people who suffer a spinal cord injury each year. Many of those never work again and some will inevitably live below the poverty line.
“The truth is most people in the world don’t have access to any of this tech, that’s the reality for 99% of people with paralysis and all sorts of other neurological conditions.
“When a breakthrough is found, how quickly can we take what is learned from that exploration, and create meaningful, impactful products and therapies and then get them out into the world, so that people can access them in their local communities?
“I think we need people pushing the boundaries at the fringes. The tricky bit is [navigating] the pathway through to the mass market and communities.”
What the future holds
The good news is that money is now starting to flow into tech start-ups working in these areas, and Mark wants to see a commercialisation of the electrical stimulation device.
The key, he says, would be to have multiple technologies integrated, so that not only is the electrical stimulation working in tandem with the robotics, but that there’s also live biofeedback, to enable you to train specific muscles, and virtual reality, meaning you wouldn’t have to look at a computer screen.
“I think the important thing is we’re seeing therapies with the potential of changing people’s lives emerging in labs all around the world and the big breakthrough’s going to happen whenever these techs and inventions that are emerging cross over.”
Seeing the progress so far – and the potential of so much more to come – is the driver of Mark’s life and work, pushing forward this collaboration between diverse scientific disciplines and technologies.
At the same time, seeing his achievements is also encouraging many other people to face their challenges and change the reality around them.
Hear from Mark Pollock and other changemakers like him in Changemakers@GESF at the Global Education and Skills Forum 2019.