Mark Pollock

Each week Maria Franzoni, Speaker Bureau Director, invites one of her speakers to talk about their life, work, passions and leisure so that you can get to know the person who is the speaker behind the mic.

This week Maria’s guest on the show is Mark Pollock. Mark is an explorer, innovator, and collaborator. Even though he went blind in 1998, Mark has competed in ultra-endurance races and was the first blind person to race to the South Pole. He also won silver and bronze medals for rowing at the Commonwealth Games. In 2010, Mark was left paralysed after falling from a second story window. He is now exploring the frontiers of spinal cord injury recovery and is walking daily using bionic robotic legs. Through the Mark Pollock Trust he’s on a mission to find a cure for paralysis. Mark is the subject of the acclaimed documentary Unbreakable. He’s a Davos, Wired, EG and TED speaker and is the co-founder of the global running series called Run in the Dark.

Mark talks about his incredible mission to find a cure for paralysis and why his drive for adventure took him to the South Pole and across the Gobi Desert. Mark explains how he is an explorer and tells us about his passion for speaking.

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I had a great desire, not simply to accept the status quo and the best practice, and the reality that there is no cure but rather to accept that life was worth living in a wheelchair and get on with life.

Podcast Transcript

This week Maria’s guest on the show is Mark Pollock, an explorer, innovator, and collaborator. Even though he went blind in 1998, Mark has competed in ultra-endurance races and was the first blind person to race to the South Pole. He also won silver and bronze medals for rowing at the Commonwealth Games. In 2010, Mark was left paralysed after falling from a second story window.  He is now exploring the frontiers of spinal cord injury recovery and is walking daily using bionic robotic legs. Through the Mark Pollock Trust he’s on a mission to find a cure for paralysis. Mark is the subject of the acclaimed documentary Unbreakable. He’s a Davos, Wired, EG and TED speaker and is the co- founder of the global running series called Run in the Dark.

Mark talks about his incredible mission to find a cure for paralysis and why his drive for adventure took him to the South Pole and across the Gobi Desert. Mark explains how he is an explorer and tells us about his passion for speaking.

Maria:   

This week my guest is Mark Pollock, an explorer, innovator and collaborator. Even though he went blind in 1998, Mark has competed in ultra-endurance races and was the first blind person to race to the South Pole. He also won silver and bronze medals for rowing at the Commonwealth Games. In 2010, Mark was left paralyzed after falling from a second story window.

He is now exploring the frontiers of spinal cord injury recovery and is walking daily using bionic robotic legs. Through the Mark Pollock Trust he’s on a mission to find a cure for paralysis. Mark is the subject of the acclaimed documentary Unbreakable. He’s a Davos, Wired, EG and TED speaker and is the co-founder of the global running series called Run in the Dark. Mark, you are very welcome.

Mark Pollock:

Thanks for having me.

Maria: 

I’m delighted to have you. What an incredible story your life is. I’d like to go back if I may with you, and take you back to the days of a sighted young man in the nineties. Could you tell us what happened? What was the story? How did you go blind?

Mark Pollock:  

Yeah. Life was pretty good for me 20 years ago now. I can’t believe it. It is a number of lifetimes ago for me. I could walk, bike around, I could see. I wasn’t bald as I am now. I was a student studying business studies and economics degree. I was going to go off and start a job in investment banking in London and I was rowing for the university and also for my country.

In the space of two weeks, through detached retinas, I went from that person, that I’ve just described as someone who was and remains completely blind. I suppose the obvious thing was that I couldn’t see but along with losing my sight I also lost my identity, and it’s perhaps the loss of identity which is if not more difficult to deal with than sight loss, certainly as difficult.

Maria:

That is a huge challenge. You really were a young man then. What support and how did you have to deal with such a challenge?

Mark Pollock: 

I think the support was very, very important because it was a struggle. That’s an understatement but I was in the hospital, my mum was very much there. My dad was there, my sister. I was just in my fourth year of university and I had a really good network in Trinity College in Dublin. My old school friends were around and I really had a solid background, a solid network of people to be there and support me.

I’ve always been very conscious that there’s a sense that we need to have some drive within us, but I think that drive soon disappears if you don’t have the right people around you to move forward to whatever that happens that be.

Maria: 

I think you’re absolutely right about that. You then decided to compete in ultra-endurance races across deserts, mountains, polar ice caps. You’re clearly a little bit crazy but how do you attempt to do something like that when you cannot see?

Mark Pollock: 

Maybe, going back to that earlier point, I had to really rely on team mates, build up close bonds and trust with guys that were guiding me across mountain tops and environments, where if something went wrong it was potentially very, very dangerous. So, building up over time, I made my first journey with a white stick. Then I relied on my guide dog. Then I started relying on my teammates, holding on to their elbows, with them telling me what rocks were underfoot in the Gobi Desert.   We developed over time different systems for different environments, like mountains or sandy environments, and more particularly 10 years after going blind the race to the South Pole, where we designed a system of carbon fibre poles to attach from my ski poles down to the back of my teammates sledge, like a guide dog harness. I was being guided the whole way to the South Pole.

But all of those adventure races were, on one hand sport for me, but every time we did something we had to innovate a new system just to get through the environment and more particularly to be competing. Because when I lost my sight I felt like I was going to have to be a reluctant spectator. When I lost my identity, I thought I was going to have to sit on the side-lines. Over time, all of those races were simply for me to feel normal again. Racing, competing, pursuing success, risking failure. It wasn’t proving anything about the blindness. It was just actually to feel normal again.

Maria:  

Incredible. Incredible bravery as well. And then of course in 2010 you actually went paralysed when you fell. What happened there? How did that happen?

Mark Pollock:  

For a long time, I said it’s entirely unrelated to the blindness but nobody knows. But I think what happened was, I was back at a rowing event, Henley Royal Regatta in England, and I was back for the second night at the house that I was staying in. As a blind person, if you get up to go to the bathroom, you tend to stand up and feel along the wall of where you’re going, either with your hands or your feet.

I think I must have been doing that, and as I felt along the wall my hand went through an open window. The windowsill was pretty low and I cartwheeled out of the second story window onto the concrete below. The people who found me, my friends, thought I was dead. The doctors looking at my injuries suspected I was going to die. For some very real moments and days and times, right through at that early stage, I wondered whether dying might have been a better outcome. Adding the potential of paralysis to the blindness, considering particularly that I’d hung my hat so much on being a competitor, being an athlete. I thought, “What happens now? A blind paralysed adventure athlete?” That just wasn’t going to happen. So I was back to a place again where I had to lose … Well, I had lost my identity and I had set about trying to find some reason to get out of bed in the morning, some understanding of why I would even bother.

Maria: 

That is a huge challenge. Was that a bigger obstacle … Was that much harder than when you were a youngster, where you saw your life plans change completely? Was this a bigger obstacle for you, do you think?

Mark Pollock:    

Practically speaking, the combination of blindness and paralysis is difficult. I think in fact paralysis, and I’m paralysed from the stomach down. I can’t feel or move my legs. Lots of people have nerve pain, spasms, the high doses of medication, pressure sores, time in the hospital. The list … I don’t want to drag you down here Maria, but paralysis is difficult. When you combine that with the blindness, it was a really tough 18 months in the hospital.

Objectively, I think this is and was harder than just when I lost my sight, but I think over time, and I wrote a blog about it actually, which is still up there, I questioned whether the stuff I had been talking to businesses about was just a way of making a living, just a way of me funding my adventures. I used to talk about facing facts. I used to talk about not making excuses. I talked about getting the right people around you to do what you want to do, and that’s what I did when I lost my sight. That’s what I did when I went and raced to the South Pole. That’s what questioned when I was lying in intensive care, writing that blog called, Optimist Realist, or Something Else?

Over the following 18 months in the hospital I think that I have used those decisions that I used to talk about as a way of really tackling this challenge of blindness and paralysis, and rebuilding a new identity, this time as an explorer, to try and find a cure for paralysis. So, I have been one of the strange people who has not only lived the messages that I present at my conferences but had let’s say an opportunity to question whether it was simply a speech or whether it was real.

Maria:  

That’s very profound Mark. Now you say you’re an explorer. In a way I feel you’re exploring something new now. You’re exploring a new world. In a way a world of technology because I mentioned in your introduction you have bionic robotic legs. Can you share a bit about your legs?

Mark Pollock: 

Yeah. My robot legs or my paralysed ones? I require both.

Maria: 

The robot … Yeah. You do require both, but tell us a bit about the robot legs.

Mark Pollock:

I perhaps do a lot of naval gazing around identity. It was important when I was just doing the sports events. Going to the South Pole, that was adventure. Gobi desert, that was adventure. All of those things had been done before. I never called myself an explorer. I think it would be a stretch to call yourself a blind explorer geographically, but now that I’m paralysed, pushing the boundaries of what’s possible. The 75 year old scientist from UCLA in Los Angeles who’s working with electrical stimulation to recharge and reignite the nervous system, he’s an explorer in my mind.

He’s like the Shackleton and Scott of 100 years ago. The people building robotic legs in the old Ford Model T factory in Richmond in California, building exoskeletons there, aligned with Elon Musk, in my book they’re explorers. I suppose being a test pilot for these technologies, I feel more aligned with the explorers of old than I ever did when I raced to the South Pole.

When I strap into my carbon fibre, aluminium, and steel robotic legs, I have motors at the knees and hips. I carry a computer integrated on my back with battery packs and I’m able to lean forward with crutches, press a button and stand. The motors drive up, the hips move forward and then I’m in a position to start walking in the gym. Onto the left foot, take a step. It automatically takes a step with the right. Put weight onto the right, it automatically goes with the left. So I can, in a gym, in a rehab context, stand up out of my wheelchair and walk. Which is a technological miracle in itself but of course we want to go further than that.

Maria:

That’s really exciting. What does it feel like for you? Does it feel like there’s something else controlling you, or do you feel in control?

Mark Pollock:  

It’s a bit of a combination of both things. Part of the trick with it is to start to work with the technology. The technology’s getting more and more intelligent. There are sensors all over the feet. There’s data right throughout the machine, and I have to work with the machine. All of the data goes back automatically, back to the factory in San Francisco, and then we analyse the data with the scientists that work on the ground in Ireland.

Over time, I’m learning about robotics. I’m learning about artificial intelligence. I’m learning about big data. Over time, I can start to see how the technology will start to integrate with the human system. It feels, for let’s say first generation set of robotic legs, it feels pretty good. But what we’re working on now is having that electrical stimulation of the spine to allow for voluntary movement.

When I have the electrical stimulation on my spine, two electrodes pushing electricity into my nervous system, that allows me voluntarily move my legs. When I do that, I feel like my legs are meaty. I can feel the meat on the bone. I suppose the best analogy is when I’m just standing in the robot without the electrical stimulation, I feel if something went wrong, if the robot collapsed, I would just collapse like one of those little dolls. I don’t know if you remember, you used to press the bottom of them and the string all collapsed and the doll would collapse onto itself.

Maria: 

Yes.

Mark Pollock: 

When I have the electrical stimulation on my spine I don’t feel like I’m going to collapse, even if the robot did. The exciting thing is that the robot’s so intelligent now that it knows in real-time, when I do a little bit with my own legs, the robot does less as my muscles do more. We want to layer on more and more of that technology, robot for movement as a foundation, electrical stimulation to ignite the nervous system, and then into bio-feedback, virtual video for some, not for me, audio and visual virtual gaming, so that people can in a rehab environment visualise the outside world.

I’m kind of moving more and more into this intersection, where humans and technology collide, and it really is … If I wasn’t blind and paralysed, I would say this is probably the most exciting thing that I’ve done, even in comparison to going to the South Pole. Just wish I wasn’t paralysed.

Maria:   

It’s incredibly exciting. How far off do you think you are from actually being fully mobile with the robotics?

Mark Pollock:  

It feels a little bit like training for an ultra-marathon, or training for a South Pole. We’re going to get little wins along the way, and the robotics are going to allow for movement. The electrical stimulation … Well, in fact you can buy the robotic legs, but you’re in a gym environment.

Over time, you could start to imagine how those would become perhaps even embedded into the human body itself. The motors would perhaps be in the joints in between your own skeleton. Those are available as external exoskeletons. The electrical stimulation, we have been working with venture capital companies in Silicon Valley to help fund the development of those, and get them out to the clinics so other people can access them. That looks like a three, four, five year timeframe.

And then, we’re into biological interventions. Nerve bridging, stem cells. That’s a little more tricky. That looks like a 15, 20, 25 year timeframe. But there are wins along the way, and I think as long as we get a little win every now and again, then we can keep going.

Maria: 

We’re going to keep watching and seeing what’s happening. We’re going to wait for the first real bionic man here, I think. You describe yourself in your profile as a collaborator. Can you tell me what you mean by that.

Mark Pollock:  

Look, I think it became very clear whenever I was lying in the hospital, even with the support that I had around me, that I was not an expert in this field. I was not an expert in spinal cord injury. I was simply someone who was forced into this world, like millions of people around the world who become paralysed through catastrophic injuries.

But I had a great desire, not simply to accept the status quo and the best practice, and the reality that there is no cure, but rather to accept that life was worth living in a wheelchair and get on with life. But also, running in tandem to explore the hope side of the equation to run acceptance and hope in parallel. In the hope side, I needed to go out there. I needed to find those explorers who were pushing the boundaries of what’s possible to find a cure in exercise, physiology, robotics, medical devices, neuroscience, biology.

I had to get to know them. I had to build relationships with them. I had to work out a way that they could have a reason for being involved in a wider project. Why should the robotics people get involved with the electrical stimulation people? Why should the American universities get involved with the Irish, or the UK, or the Swiss universities? What I always fall back on is the Nietzsche quote from Man’s Search for Meaning written by Viktor Frankl. Nietzsche said, “He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.”

The idea that if you know why you’re doing what you’re doing, you can put up with the tough stuff. But when it comes to collaboration, which is where I stepped in, I’m not an expert. I’m simply an expert in trying to find a cure, but we always bring our scientists and our collaborators and our partners back to the idea, why are they doing what they’re doing?

They’ve got to have some reason to be there, and we keep reminding them about the 60 million people who don’t have access to their technology. How by working together there is a possibly that we’ll find a cure within our lifetime. When everyone’s sitting around a table, looking at each other in the eye and we remind them why they started in the first place, then all of the difficulties seem to melt away. That’s my job, to get these incredibly intelligent people to look sideways sometimes, so they can start working with other people for the greater prize.

Maria: 

I think that’s brilliant. That’s fantastic. All power to you. You speak really eloquently, and I’ve heard you speak a number of times, and you’re a brilliant storyteller. You paint incredible pictures, and you take the audience, and you’ve taken me as well when I’ve heard you speak, on an emotional rollercoaster. How did you start speaking?

Mark Pollock: 

I was about 26. It’s a while ago now. I actually stood in for a guy who couldn’t do a job in Shell in Ireland. At a lunch time, I was working for a dotcom consultancy around about 2002 and that dotcom consultancy went bust a couple of months after I did my first talk. I wasn’t get paid very much but I had gone blind, I had gone to the Commonwealth Games and won silver and bronze at those championships.   In the autumn of 2002 just after the championships I went in and did this talk for Shell, and I got paid to do it. I thought one, I enjoyed preparing, not just my story but trying to understand what the audience might get out of my story. So I did that. I read a book by Charles Handy called The Elephant and the Flea and that was that independence, the flea could work with lots of elephants, like the investment banks and the pharmaceutical companies, or any other large companies.

I figured, “Well, I quite like the speaking.” I thought I might have a story to sell and someone had already bought me, and the company was about to go bust. So, a little bit out of necessity, a little bit out of desire, and then a little bit drawing on the Charles Handy’s Elephant and the Flea, and things started to take off from there.

I suppose Maria the important thing I always think is as my story is also my life. Because sometimes, I was listening to your introduction, thinking, “Well, God, that is a story, but it’s actually my life.” No matter how interesting a story might become, the only reason for a speaker to be in the room is so that the audience gets something out of it. I think and I hope that my stories are entertaining, but the only reason I’m there is to move the audience, to challenge the audience, to get the audience thinking differently.

I would hope that if anyone watches this, it’s got to be about them. It can’t be about me. That’s where I’ve got to with my thinking around speaking. It probably started entirely about me. Very quickly I realised it was going to be no business in this if it wasn’t about the audience.

Maria:   

You’re absolutely right, and we do definitely get an awful lot from you when we hear you speak. What do you think is the best audience for you? What is the best objective you want from a client when you go to speak? What are you going to achieve for them?

Mark Pollock: 

Living in Ireland, Ireland’s so small that lots of people know your story. So whenever I come to England or I speak in America or China, and nobody knows my story, I find that I get great impact whenever nobody has a clue what’s about to happen. So I really enjoy whenever people don’t have a clue who I am.

I then have the opportunity to challenge their perceptions about how we all approach challenges. What I particularly focus on is, regardless of the challenges that we face, I particularly focus on the decisions that we make when those challenges appear. I think I can build connection with a leadership team, the temp working who lets me into the building, because the decisions that we make as human beings, whether it’s a leadership decision, or a decision about our career, or a decision even outside work, decisions that we all make are made at a human level. So I try to connect with people on a human level around the common decisions that we make, rather than the unique challenges that we face.

Maria:  

You’ve summed it up perfectly. I completely agree with you. I’d like to finally ask you to share with anyone finding themselves even newly blind, or newly paralysed, can you give them any advice on coping with it?

Mark Pollock:   

Absolutely. For me it’s two simple, pretty simple things set against a horrific background. I think the first step is that you’ve got to face it. You’ve got to face it. You’ve to acknowledge it. You’ve got to grieve for what you’ve lost. You’ve got to cry. You’ve got to acknowledge how hard it is. You’ve got to acknowledge the opportunities that you have. Really, you’ve got to look at the facts, the good, the bad, the ugly. All of it is real, but it’s all in the moment. For me, that’s the acceptance piece.

But I think within that acceptance there’s a liberty that comes from looking ahead and looking at hope for life, carrying whatever it happens to be, paralysis or blindness, with you. There is a life worth living ahead. Now the question is, how do you get, how do you move towards that hopeful future?

The second advice, if the first is about facing it and being honest about the good, the bad, and the ugly, as you move towards a hopeful future, I don’t think any of us are superhuman. None of us can, or should, try and do it all on our own. I think it’s important to admit when you’re struggling, to admit when you don’t have the answers, and to admit when you need to reach out and have a little bit of help along the way. I’d say, be honest with yourself and reach out and ask for help.

Maria:

Mark, that is stunning advice to finish on. Thank you so much.

Mark Pollock:

Thank you.

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