Mark Pollock on how we must explore the gap between reality and fantasy in pursuit of a cure for spinal cord injury

In 2010, a fall from a second story window nearly killed me. I broke my back and the damage to my spinal cord left me paralysed from the waist down. From the moment I hit the ground, I joined a global community of people that, according to the experts, have no hope of recovery from complete spinal cord injury. But, what if the experts are wrong?

Only 60 years ago, patients with a spinal cord injury had an 80% chance of being dead within a year. The 20% who survived were likely to be institutionalized. But, in 1940s in England, Doctor Guttman wasn’t prepared to accept the status quo and founded the first spinal unit in the world at Stoke Mandeville Hospital. His work transformed spinal cord injury from a death sentence to a manageable injury with near-normal life expectancy.

So, why not a dramatic change in prognosis now from “no chance of further recovery” to “some functional recovery” in the next 60 years? The answer, I suspect, lies somewhere in the misplaced fear of offering false hope.

As I lay in the spinal unit that Guttman created, navigating the psychological chasm between acceptance and hope, I was presented with an expert view from one of the senior medical team that hoping for recovery was proven to be psychologically damaging.

I simply don’t agree with that analysis. I understand that hoping for a cure without first facing up to the reality of paralysis might lead to an avoidance of learning the physical and psychological skills to live life as a wheelchair user. I have accepted the wheelchair. It is almost impossible not to.

Yet, acceptance without hope runs contrary to my experience of dealing with blindness 12 years earlier and subsequently racing to the South Pole. And I believe it stifles our ambition to progress. So, I also hope for another life: a life where there is a cure for spinal cord injuries. In the spirit of Guttman, I am challenging today’s conventional wisdom in an effort to turn that hope into a reality for myself, the global community of spinal cord injured people with no hope and the ones who will join us in the future.

First, I am exploring the possibilities of recovery using my own body as a research subject as I train for two to three hours daily. There are a growing number of therapies, technologies and products that sit outside the traditional acute and rehabilitation system and I am using many of them to test their effects. I am following an aggressive physical therapy programme, cycling on a functional stimulation bike and walking in an Ekso robotic suit.

Second, I have been in a position to fly to different countries to test some of what is available around the world. But others are not in a position to do so, and almost none of the advanced therapies and technologies that I use daily are available in mainstream medical facilities. So, I am making my body available for research and capturing the data with the aim of mainstreaming what is currently on the fringes.

The cure for spinal cord injury simply requires enough of the right people having the will to make it happen. Even if I do not walk again I believe others will if enough of us explore the gap between reality and fantasy in pursuit of a cure. It is time to disregard the impossible. If not us, who? If not now, when?

Author: Mark Pollock is an adventure athlete, co-founder of Run in the Dark and a campaigner to find a cure for spinal cord injuries. He was named as one of the Young Global Leaders Class of 2013 by the World Economic Forum.

 Image: Mark Pollock is seen walking in an Ekso robotic suit