“Sometimes the challenge chooses you”- DU Clinical Therapies and BioSoc welcome Mark Pollock

Trinity alumnus Mark Pollock was welcomed to campus to give an inspiring talk today, having overcome disability not once, but twice in his life


Pollock launched his discussion with a simple sentence: “Sometimes the challenge chooses you.” The business graduate has had many a challenge to overcome and proved to be a highly motivational speaker.  

Competitor or Spectator?

In 1998, Pollock was studying business and economics in Trinity. He was looking to start a job in investment banking in London. While in Trinity, he was not defined by studying but rather by sport. An avid rower, he found himself at Island Bridge by the Liffey one spring morning in March.

As he came out of the darkness of the changing rooms and into the light of the fresh morning, he saw the light glistening off the river. Pollock then noticed a blurring in his peripheral vision, similar to what had occurred when he was five years old when he lost his sight in right eye.

At the age of 22, following a retinal detachment he was rendered completely blind. We all have the choice to be spectators or competitors in life, and Mark chose the latter. He rebuilt his identity. He returned to the rowing boat, winning silver and bronze in the Common Wealth Games in 2002.

He ran six marathons in one week across the Gobi Desert and became the first man to run the North Pole Marathon. Ten years after he became blind, he undertook the South Pole Race. Regardless of blindness, this was a huge challenge on its own. With over 1000 km of skiing and heavy endurance, this journey was never about the snow and ice for him. He now understood that none of us are defined by our successes or failures. We are defined by whether we try to pursue success knowing that we might fail.

Optimist or Realist?

After he got back from the South Pole, he decided to propose to his girlfriend. A month before their scheduled wedding in 2010, Mark was competing in the Henley Royal Regatta in England. On returning to his room, misfortune struck again when an accident occurred which resulted in him prone on the concrete below. With a fractured skull, three bleeds in the brain, broken ribs and a weakened aorta, his chance of survival was slim. Two weeks after his accident, he struggled to accept his injuries.

He was lucky to survive but was rendered paralysed. He recalled a book “Good to Great” by Jim Collins. Admril Stockdale fought in the Vietnam War in the mid 1960’s to the 1970’s. He spent eight years as a prisoner of war and was tortured 20 times. Upon being asked how he managed to survive, he said that he always had faith he would survive in the end. On the other hand, he was adamant that he was not an optimist. When you are an optimist and an American prisoner in a Vietnamese camp, you think that you will be released by Christmas. When Christmas arrives and you are sitting in your cell, you become continuously disillusioned. Again and again, you become weakened by optimism.

Pollock’s message was clear: it is crucial to find the balance between confronting the brutal facts of our situation and knowing that in the end, you will prevail. Stockdale understood that optimists run the risk of demoralisation. We need both hope and acceptance. That night, Pollock wrote a blog and his finishing message was that he was going to fight. He just didn’t know what he was he was fighting yet. It was all a question of time. Even though he was blind and had become paralysed, he has found plenty of meaning with a new range of opportunities ahead.

Collaborator or Soloist?

Following sixteen months in hospital, Mark was fighting against paralysis. Mark stated the very interesting point that 7 out of 10 who suffer paralysis never work again and in Ireland, 40% live on the poverty line. Up to this point, we do not have a cure for paralysis. However, history is full of accounts of the impossible made possible through human endeavor.

From circumnavigating the globe to walking on the moon, humans have always pushed the boundaries of what is possible. He became fitter and stronger to trial robotic legs. His mission was to connect technology and science. The world of science and medicine is split into many different disciplines. To crack the diseases that are impossible to cure right now, a story of collaboration needs to be penned, not one of a solo protagonist. However, Mark grew up drinking coffee on the arts block wall, a far cry from the Hamilton. This was Mark’s new challenge.

A year and a half later, his mother was sitting in a hairdressers in Bangor, Northern Ireland. When chatting to her friend, she discussed that Mark was looking to trial robotic legs. The woman who she was chatting to said that her son worked in the industry in America. A day later, Pollock received a phone call from his mother’s connection in San Francisco asking to trial the robotic legs. He flew to San Francisco and tested the device for six weeks. Later in 2012, Mark became the first to own a pair of mechanical legs and has since walked over a million steps.

He wanted to push the boundaries even further. Standing and walking in the robotic legs was an incredible advance, however it does not fix the core issue. He met with scientists in UCLA where 20 people sat in the room with two professors- an American and a Russian- who discussed their work. They were using electric stimulations and combining this with drugs and mechanical legs to treat paralysis on rats. Mark offered to be the first human to test the treatment and hence spent nine months in LA doing just that.

Over the past three months, they have raised $6 million to develop prototypes. In order to complete the complex jigsaw of modern technology, all pieces are needed. From families to radiologists to investors, this is a story of collaboration. Trinity and UCLA are launching a clinical study of this technology to treat paralysis making Ireland the world centre for this research.

Mark finished with a quote from Friedrich Nietzsche, a German philosopher. “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” He began and ended the talk with a simple message. “Sometimes the challenge chooses you.” No matter what discipline you are studying, from science to medicine or business, Mark’s story is a truly inspirational one.

Seana Davis

Seana Davis is a fourth year Geology student and News Editor of Trinity News.