Thursday, January 6, 2011

First blind man to reach South Pole paralyzed in accident

From The Epoch Times:

DUBLIN — The glass half full, is a phrase often rolled out to describe the optimistic among us; for a special few, a mere drop of hope is equivalent to a brimming glass.

On July 4, 2010, Belfast-born explorer Mark Pollock (pictured), who two years prior became the first blind man ever to reach the South Pole, fell 25 feet from a bedroom window while sleepwalking in a house in Henley, U.K. where he was staying.

Mark was sent to hospital with a shattered spine, a fractured skull, and close to death.

“Paralyzed, blind and broken,” was how he described himself. The next six months were “truly torturous” he said, as days and nights were spent lying on his back, wondering, “Why?”

It had taken Mark a decade of challenges, culminating with him racing across the Antarctic, before he could say to himself that he had overcome his blindness. Now he was back at square one again.

“I was feeling pretty good in the last two years; I felt I had cracked the blindness and any demons that I may have still had with that. … Life was good, I was planning all kinds of new projects,” said Mark, describing the period after his polar adventure two years ago.

Now, six months after his accident, Mark was allowed to travel back to Ireland from the Stoke Mandeville Hospital in the U.K. for Christmas.

Looking back on 2010, Mark said he forgot how well the year had started out: Running at dawn on the Copacabana beach; land-sailing the Pampas of Barreal at the foot of the Andes Mountains; snowboarding in the Swiss Alps; and racing around Ireland on a yacht, were but a few of his adventures early in 2010.

“Until you write down what you have been up to, life can kind of drift by,” he explained.

“The start of the year was brilliant, exactly what I wanted to be doing,” he said.

Halfway through the year, disaster struck. Now paralyzed, the second half of 2010 would prove his biggest challenge ever.

One setback after another blighted his recovery: infections, weight loss of over 40 pounds, recovery and relapse pushed Mark to the edge of his resolve.

“I really couldn't see beyond the next day, the next infection,” he said.
Up to that point, Mark said he had always been a person who set goals and worked toward them. But lying on his back, unable to sleep, he had all the time in the world to reflect on the negative.

“I was in as dark a place as I’ve ever been. … It was like swimming but being unable to catch your breath; I felt like I was going down, down, and down. I don't think I got to the point where I gave up, lost the will to go on … because I'm still here,” Mark said with a chuckle.

The ability to return home for a few days over Christmas has reignited Mark's positive nature. “It feels like I can start looking to the future. … In the next few days I will decide what I’m going to do and go for it.”

Reframing his situation is something Mark says has helped him pull through his darkest hour. He said he realized that he had to try and understand that he would get through each of the little challenges one by one.

I thought back to how I felt a month after going blind, and three months after going blind and six months after going blind: it did improve, so I was drawing on previous experience to know that you do feel awful but it will get better. If you can just stick in there, you can eventually start to take control of things again,” explained Mark.

Mark went blind in 1998 at age 22, when his retinas detached. He was an international rower, studying business and preparing to become an investment banker. He had to redefine himself, become a professional adventure athlete and motivational speaker.

Mark believes that choice is something that plays a major part in the recovery process.

“You have to decide whether you are going to lie back and let it all happen to you, or whether you are willing to make a decision and get on with it, and look to the future.
I'm moving toward that point now. I think I'm more willing and able to take control of things again now, rather than letting it all get on top of me.”

As to what the future holds, Mark feels that there may be a risk that he may not get enough support to be able to get out and work and “do something meaningful.”

Mark felt the same when he went blind—there was the prospect that he would remain at home. “The idea of not striving and moving forward … sitting back and lying around the house, is just not an option for me. … I was worried for a long time that perhaps that decision was going to be outside my control because of the injury. … Living the life that I want to lead is within my control. I’m going to need a lot of help, but it is within my control.”

Before setting off on his polar adventure, Mark's girlfriend Simone put some music and poems on a digital player for him. Rudyard Kipling's poem “If” was one that Mark drew on many times for inspiration during that challenge, and it has continued to inspire him.

“I drew on lots of different lines at different times during the entire project [South Pole race]. … Simone read it to me while I was in intensive care.”

Mark thinks that line, “If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster, and treat those two impostors just the same,” sums up his 2010.

Another positive development for Mark is the emergence of technologies such as Berkeley Bionics' eLegs, which Time Magazine named in its 50 Best Inventions of 2010.

Mark has been investigating this; the Israeli built Argo Medical Technologies Ltd.'s ReWalk, as well as medical interventions.

“I'm investigating everything to help me live a meaningful life, and those robotic legs are something that I'm very interested in looking at.”