‘History is filled with accounts of the impossible made possible’

26 Jul 2019

From left: Mark Pollock and Simone George speaking at Inspirefest 2019. Image: Conor McCabe Photography

Simone George and Mark Pollock told the rapt Inspirefest 2019 audience about the latest developments in their quest to end paralysis.

Humanity has always been drawn to the harshest and most unfriendly corners of the earth. The attraction lies in the spirit of adventure and the desire to conquer seemingly impossible tasks.

This is a spirit possessed by Mark Pollock, and it inspired him to run six marathons in seven days and to venture to the North Pole.

“When I asked him what had led to this high-octane life, he quoted Nietzsche: ‘He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how,’” said Pollock’s partner Simone George, a human rights lawyer, on the Inspirefest 2019 stage.

When George and Pollock met, they explained, Pollock was still in the process of “rebuilding his identity” after losing his sight at the age of 22. Adjusting to the new normal was a process, and conquering the aforementioned adventures was part of that.

“I took part in a 43-day expedition race in the coldest, most remote, most challenging place on earth,” Pollock said. “It was the first race to the South Pole since Shackleton, Scott and Amundsen set foot in Antarctica a hundred years before.

“And, putting the demons of blindness behind me, with every step towards the Pole it offered me a long-lasting sense of contentment … it turned out I would need that in reserve.”

Pollock went on to explain that this helped him deal with the outcome of an accident at a friend’s house. After falling out of a bedroom window, he was left with bleeds on the brain, a possible torn aorta and a spine broken in numerous places. He also had “no feeling or movement” below his waist.

“And, as I lay in intensive care, facing the prospect of being blind and paralysed, I was trying to make sense of what was going on.”

George too found herself reeling from the news and all the complicated decisions she had to make with doctors. For her, the strongest impulse was to research. She and Pollock had been told by the doctors that what movement he didn’t recover after 12 weeks was unlikely to ever be recovered at all. George wondered why this was.

She began emailing scientists directly and reading articles about Christopher Reeve, the Superman actor who fell from a horse and became quadriplegic, only to recover some movement two years after.

This research set off a chain of events for both George and Pollock, which led them to a new adventure: searching for innovative medical solutions for the millions of people around the world who are paralysed.

‘Inspired by stories of exploration, we started asking ourselves, “Well, why can’t human endeavour cure paralysis in our lifetime?”’

“Up to this point in history, it has proven to be impossible to find a cure for paralysis. Yet history is filled with accounts of the impossible made possible through human endeavour, the kind of human endeavour that took explorers to the South Pole at the start of the last century, and the kind of human endeavour that will take adventurers to Mars in the early part of this century,” Pollock said.

“Inspired by those stories of exploration, we started asking ourselves, ‘Well, why can’t that same human endeavour cure paralysis in our lifetime?’ Well, we really believe that it can.”

The pair teamed up with scientists the world over, including the team at San Francisco-based robotics engineering company Ekso Bionics and a group of scientists at UCLA headed up by Dr Reggie Edgerton.

Both teams had separately come up with incredible innovations that have advanced research in their areas but had not collaborated prior to meeting George and Pollock. “As so often happens when scientists are focused on their bench and creating these incredible breakthroughs, they hadn’t got together,” George explained.

Both George and Pollock feel confident that by forging key relationships with some of the best scientists in the world, they can help to shepherd in an end to paralysis.

To hear more from the couple, check out the talk in full delivered at Inspirefest 2019.

Inspirefest is Silicon Republic’s international event celebrating the point where science, technology and the arts collide. Ultra Early Bird tickets for Inspirefest 2020 are available now.

Eva Short was a journalist at Silicon Republic