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The Incredible Bionic Man
Greg Nichols | Photo: John O’Regan, Brendan Smyth, Mark Pollock, Nick Wolfe, and Ekso Bionics | January 27, 2014
Mark Pollock grew up in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. Then he went blind. Then he became a world class adventure athlete. And then he was mysteriously paralyzed. Now he faces his greatest challenge yet.
When Pollock woke up in intensive care, he had a fractured skull and his brain was bleeding in three places. His chest had filled with blood, and scans showed a possible weakening of the aorta. Several of his ribs were broken, and he had a probable spinal cord injury. He couldn’t remember what had happened. He was awake, that was all he knew, and in excruciating pain—and he couldn’t feel anything below his navel. The indications were grim, but it would be over a month before he would know whether he would regain the ability to walk.
When he was stable, Pollock was moved to the spinal unit at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in England, where his back was sliced open and two of his vertebrae were bridged with metalwork. Like the eye doctors, the physicians there never definitively stated the worst—that he would never walk again. They simply said that there was nothing more they could do. During this uncertain time, between vomiting and struggling to take full breaths, Pollock managed to write a few blog entries.
“Since [my last surgery],” he wrote on August 18, 2010, “I have endured days of demoralizing pain, vomiting, an unidentified infection, endless drugs, blood transfusions, and fluid running into me through needles in my wrists. When my wrists ran out of available veins, they used my ankles. I was in some dark places in my head; I am not sure if I have ever experienced as tough a week as last week.”
Pollock spent the next six months in agonizing recovery. “I was blind, paralyzed, and broken,” he says. “Physically blind, physically paralyzed, but mentally broken.” A year and a half earlier, he’d been standing at the geographic South Pole, savoring his greatest physical triumph. A documentary about his trip—called Blind Man Walking—happened to air while he was in the hospital. To Pollock, it already felt like a different life.
Hope is subtle, though; it plants seeds. Pollock’s fiancée, Simone George, stayed by his side, lifting his spirits and helping him to look ahead to what she assured him would be brighter days. Friends gave him magazine articles about the latest treatments for spinal cord injury and about emerging technologies that were helping people with paralysis thrive. He read about a company in New Zealand called Rex Bionics, and then about an Israeli company called ReWalk. In November of 2010, Time named the latest exoskeleton from Ekso Bionics one of the 50 best inventions of the year.
Pollock started reaching out to the companies in 2011, but it was slow going. Interest in exoskeletons was sky-high by then, and demonstrations were difficult to arrange. He finally got a chance to visit Ekso Bionics’ East Bay headquarters in January 2012. “I was really worried that my original disability, my blindness, was going to feature in my attempts to deal with my new disability,” he says. It’s challenging for paraplegics to know where their legs are in space without seeing them, and no one was sure how capably Pollock would manage in the Ekso suit. In California, he was tested and measured by physiotherapists, counseled, and then strapped into the device. From a seated position, he clasped a walker and listened to instructions. There was a countdown; Pollock shifted his weight forward—and then he stood up, grinning from ear to ear.
“How much taller does it make me?” he asked.
“I’m six-one, and I feel like I’m looking up to you,” the physical therapist answered.
In hopes of buying an Ekso suit, Pollock started working the phones as soon as he returned home to Ireland. The Ekso suit currently costs around $110,000, though the company hopes to slash that figure by more than half in the next few years. At present, demand is still low enough that many of the parts used in the device are machined to order. As the customer base grows and demand increases, Harding expects those same parts to be made using less expensive techniques like casting or forging. Harding compares the Ekso to a high-end motorcycle: If you just build one, it’s hugely expensive, but when you make lots of them, you get efficiencies of scale.
About 40 Ekso suits are currently being used in rehabilitation clinics in North America, Europe, and South Africa. At present, the suit is being offered as a therapeutic device for reducing secondary complications associated with sitting in a wheelchair all day. Recently it has been made available as a tool for teaching patients how to walk again after debilitating strokes and incomplete spinal cord injuries. It is not yet for sale as a mobility device, primarily because the company is taking a cautious approach. As with any new medical technology, the drawback of rushing to market without strict guidelines lies in the potential for unforeseen risks. The gurus at Ekso Bionics want to be sure that their suit is optimized for real people to take into the real world before offering it as a complement to or a replacement for a wheelchair.
The good news is that this is projected to happen sooner rather than later. “You’re going to see somebody get onto an airplane and sit down in coach, and you’re not going to really know if they’re paralyzed or not,” says Harding, envisioning a future that he believes is less than five years out. “It’s all going to look very easy all of a sudden.”
Mark Pollock is helping to make that possible. In October 2012, he became the first individual in the world to own an Ekso—that number has now climbed to six. Harding and Angold believe that the former elite rower is logging more time—up to several hours a day—and distance in his device than anyone else using a bionic exoskeleton. Every step that Pollock takes is logged and sent electronically to Ekso Bionics’ headquarters. His goal for last February, which marked one full year in the suit, was 2,200 steps in one hour. He managed 2,196 and was hugely disappointed. Now, a year later, he’s obliterated that old mark—his personal best currently stands at 3,207 steps.
By pushing the suit to its absolute limits, Pollock is helping to root out unforeseen problems. When he burned through one of the hip motors on his device, engineers at Ekso Bionics redesigned the motor, and the company replaced the faulty part throughout the entire fleet. He is also helping the company understand the effects of the suit on the human body, sending in regular medical reports and detailed entries from a personal diary. The data are part of an ongoing study to track factors like neuropathic pain and bowel and bladder function among users of the device, crucial issues for people living with paralysis.
Pollock’s journey as a paralyzed man is only just beginning, but already he’s being recognized as an important voice in the community. Soon after his injury, friends and family started the Mark Pollock Trust to help relieve the enormous financial burden of his recovery. Pollock is using the trust as a platform to connect disparate groups working on spinal cord injuries—in particular, to bring technologists like Harding and Angold, who are helping people live with paralysis, together with the scientists who are striving to eradicate it.
A lifelong athlete, Pollock has a keen interest in exercise therapy as a possible way forward for spinal cord injury sufferers. His trust sponsors high-profile running events to raise money for research and to promote awareness about the ongoing drive to get people out of wheelchairs. This past summer, he and his fiancée joined the board of the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation, where they are helping support a major project exploring how epidural stimulation may combat secondary problems of paralysis, like loss of bladder, bowel, and sexual function.
For the man who pushed his body to the limits of endurance, who has competed in some of the harshest environments on earth, this latest chapter in his life represents perhaps the greatest challenge yet. “With the adventure racing, even in all those extreme places, it was always clear that I was an athlete competing in a structured event,” Pollock says. “I feel like I’m more of an explorer now than I ever was at the South Pole. The Shackletons, the Scotts, and the Amundsens were exploring the frontiers of the physical landscape a hundred years ago. I feel now that I’m exploring the frontiers of recovery from spinal cord injury.”
Originally published in the February issue of San Francisco