Blind, Paralyzed Athlete Sets Olympic Standard for Optimism

June 26, 2012 Updated: October 1, 2015
The Ekso exoskeleton robotic legs
The Ekso exoskeleton robotic legs. (Ekso Bionics)

DUBLIN—If there were an Olympic event for never giving up and always staying optimistic, Mark Pollock would be a front-runner for gold.

His eternal optimism was rewarded with the honor of being selected to carry the Olympic torch through Dublin.

The Belfast-born explorer lost his sight in 1998. In January 2009 overcoming his disability, he became the first blind person to ever reach the South Pole.

But tragically, barely a year later, he fell 25 feet from a bedroom window while sleepwalking and almost died. He was left paralyzed as a result. 

Pollock was nominated by Trinity College Dublin, the university where he had been studying when he went blind, for the honor of Olympic torchbearer.

“To have any sort of relationship with the Olympics, particularly when they are so close to us in London, is exciting,” said Pollock cheerfully about receiving the privilege.

Pollock is currently working on a TV project about some of the Irish Paralympians.

“I’ve been impressed at the level that they’re training at. … I’m starting to understand the level of Paralympian involvement.”

Pollock says he is particularly impressed with London 2012 because, in his view, the Olympics and Paralympics are being marketed side-by-side, on par with each other, as one event. 

“I’m very excited at what that will do for peoples understanding of Paralympic sport, that it is at an elite level, just like the Olympics,” said Pollock.

Journey of Recovery

Pollock’s first half year after the sleepwalking accident was horrible. He battled one infection after another. 

Yet he remained determined to return to living a meaningful life. Unhappy with the post-hospital therapy options in Ireland or the U.K., he and his girlfriend, Simone George, traveled to the San Diego-based Project Walk—a specialized exercise-based spinal cord injury recovery center—in February 2011.

“If you don’t keep fit, you can get all kinds of secondary complications with spinal cord injuries. If you exercise in the right way, then you have a chance of getting some sensation or function back by reorganizing the nervous system, and I am in Project Walk starting that process,” Pollock told The Epoch Times at the time.

A year later, he returned to Project Walk where he unexpectedly got the opportunity 
to test out a robotic skeleton called the Ekso exoskeleton.

“I was able to get into it, stand, and walk with a walker, and then with crutches,” said Pollock.

Since the accident, Pollock has been investigating anything that is currently available or may become available to allow him to walk again.

Pollock has focused these efforts in three areas: The first was getting fit and strong again to try and reroute the nervous system around the damaged parts of his spine—the Project Walk-type training.

The second area was technology, including the robotic legs. 

The third may be some kind of medical intervention, such as stem cells, drugs, or implants.

Robotic Legs

“My big concern was that I would come along, get the opportunity to test them, but I would not be able to use them, either because of my paralysis or the blindness.

“I was a little bit worried that my old disability [the blindness], which started in 1998, was going to affect the opportunity for me to deal with my second disability [paralysis],” says Pollock.

“There is an issue there, I can’t see where I’m going, but the good news was that I was able to get around that. I was able to use them. … The reason I was able to use the robotic legs was, quite possibly, because I got fit and strong by attending Project Walk.”

The robotic legs are radically different from being in a wheelchair, says Pollock, because in the chair you’re low down always have to look up at people.

“My first thoughts when I stood up in the Ekso exoskeleton were, ‘I’m immediately looking people in the eye, face-to-face with people, even a little bit taller!'”

The device takes some co-ordination and experimentation to get used to, in terms of shifting weight, using the crutches, and so on. Nonetheless, Pollock was thrilled that in only a few seconds he was actually up and walking. 

Based on his experience, he believes that the technology still needs some developing to make it 100 percent safe, but at that point it may be a viable way to be mobile and independent. 

“It’s exciting, it’s here and it is very, very close to being a reality for an individual like me,” says Pollock smiling.

“If it works and it is safe and I could stroll through the city streets and stand listening to buskers, meet people, shake their hands and look them in the eye, if I could do that then it would be at a point where, the downside of paralysis … would be taken out of the equation,” he says.

“On the one hand I’m really excited that I’m still a candidate, that I was up, that I was walking, that I have actually touched and felt the device. … But on the other side, I couldn’t buy one there and then, they are not available even if I had the money. … I’m sitting on the fence a bit with my emotions.”

Chances of Success 

According to Claudia Nanau, Marketing Communications Manager at Ekso Bionics, Pollock should not face any additional challenges in using the Ekso compared to anybody else. 

“Everybody using the Ekso needs initial training and assistance to learn to strap the Ekso on, stand up, find their balance by using crutches, and learning to walk again. Mark has very good upper body strength, thus, he can transfer himself into the Ekso and strap it on by himself,” says Nanau.

According to Nanau, so far there are more than 100 people walking in the device, and more than 160,000 steps have been taken. 

“Patients with different levels of spinal cord injuries have walked with Ekso assisted by a physiotherapist. Everybody who has experienced walking in the device could tell of improvements. Standing and walking has certainly psychological benefits,” she said.

Currently, 10 of the top rehabilitation clinics in the United States have started conducting trials to see how Ekso can be best integrated into their rehabilitation programs. Seven clinics in Europe will follow shortly.

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