Posts Tagged 'spinal cord injury'

Yes, You Need More Than Just You

Last Saturday morning I woke up, facing into my seventh and eighth training sessions in four days and I struggled. As my care assistant knocked the door, let himself in and made his way up the stairs in my house, I wanted to tell him to turn around and let me sleep on.

I want to write this blog to tell you that I can only do what I do because of people and the strategies that they help me to keep in place. Good people. It made me think of all of you who are part of Run in the Dark: training, struggling with training, fundraising, volunteering and setting up pop-ups. I suspect that the good people around you are as important to you as they are to me. Whether it’s a running partner or someone to watch your kids when you’re training or a good physiotherapist. We need more than just us to get where we want to go. It’s the only way. I am sure of it.

So, when last Saturday, my care assistant knocked the door, let himself in and made his way up the stairs in my house and I wanted to tell him to turn around and to let me sleep on, (not because I am lazy or just don’t fancy it, but because it’s hard and I’m tired and eight sessions in four days is a tough schedule with work and life and all it involves), I said nothing. And this was only because I knew that in 90 minutes time Simon O’Donnell, my South Pole teammate turned rehab teammate would be waiting in the gym to help me train and Dr. Neil Fleming, the post-doctoral research fellow that we fund, would be ready to capture the data.

My care assistant, Chris came into my room, I transferred onto my shower chair and rolled into the shower. He got my clothes, I dressed and we headed to the lab. Simon, Neil, Chris and I together completed 30 minutes of standing me at a squat rack completing single knee bends, alternate knee bends, double leg straightens and squats.

Then I completed my usual hour of spinal electrical stimulation while walking in my robot.

The reason I am doing it is clear to me – I want and have a shot at treating, if not curing my and others paralysis. I am the only person in the world so far who’s fortunate enough to trial this combination of electrical stimulation, drug and walking. But even when the future benefit is clear, my present self (the tired self who wants to sleep) trumps the future self (the paralysed man who is getting some way better). Even where there can be no clearer incentive for me to commit to every training session, I need strategies and good people to guard against my present self failing. People I cannot and will not let down.

So, now, at the end of another day with an early morning in the gym tomorrow, I think about that Run In The Dark red river of light that will flow through the streets on Wednesday the 11th of November carrying me along with it ( I think about the 25,000 people right around the world pulling on running shoes and going training and how you’ve helped me to get out of bed, to go to the lab. Over the last few years I’ve met so many people with different reasons for running: some run in the dark as first timers with the aim of finishing, some are there to win, some are there for their loved ones who are injured and so many are there to help us fast-track a cure for paralysis, to be on this most exciting of expeditions. Runners, walkers, volunteers, committees, professionals and sponsors, look after yourselves, get help and support from others to do so, and know that I couldn’t do this without you.

Mark at the Run In The Dark Start in 2013

On Being a Realist

On the 18th July 2010 I was lying in the acute ward of The National Spinal Injuries Centre in the UK. It was two weeks after my fall, I couldn’t feel or move my legs, I was pumped full of morphine and despite all of this I was feeling lucky to be alive.

As I lay there in the middle of the night I wrote a blog called, ‘Optimist, Realist or Something Else? I was surrounded by guys who were paralysed from the neck, chest or waist down and I was better off than many of them and worse off than some. I could acknowledge that they were paralysed but the question that I could not answer was: “Am I going to be one of these guys?”

And, as I wrote the blog I remembered a book that I had read called ‘Good to Great’ by Jim Collins. He spoke about the Stockdale Principle, a principle based on the experience of long-term prisoners of war and how the optimists were not the ones who survived. Realists did. The reason for this was that the optimists thought that they would be free soon, so they never faced the reality that they may never get out. As a result they were constantly disappointed, demoralised and died in their cells. Whereas the realists dealt in facts, faced the reality of their current circumstances. They were the ones to survive.

This is why I titled the blog Optimist, Realist or Something Else? In those first couple of weeks I questioned if I should be super positive and say – I will make a full recovery – and risk being a Stockdale optimist. I also wondered – should I be a realist and embrace the fact that my legs are not working and therefore are unlikely to recover? But if I did that I feared I would potentially shut off the power of my mind and body to recover in ways that we don’t yet understand.

Looking back I can see how being an optimist was the easy option because it doesn’t demand an examination of the facts. Yet my reluctance to be a realist was misplaced and left me looking for something else. But there is nothing else, being a realist is the only option.

Now, as a realist I have been able to deal in all of the facts. The fact is that I have a catastrophic spinal cord injury. The fact is that I am paralysed and cannot move anything below my waist. The fact is that finding a cure has proven to be impossible up to this point in history. But it is also a fact that human history is made up over and over again of accounts of the impossible made possible through human endeavour.

I don’t believe that there is any need to worry about being a realist. Being a realist allows us to examine the full suite of options and that includes as much despair, as it does acceptance and fantastical hope.

Mark in Wheelchair

Superman’s Legacy Lives On At FAIL BETTER

Late last year I was invited to contribute to an exhibition called FAIL BETTER at The Science Gallery in Trinity College Dublin. That exhibition is on for the next 3 months and has been billed as a perspective-shifting exploration of epic and inspirational failures. It features contributions from all walks of life, including famous explorers, inventors, scientists, and athletes.

Our contribution was to bring Christopher Reeve’s wheelchair to Ireland to highlight the failed notion of rehabilitation; that the wheelchair compensates for our inability to walk.

The text below is what accompanies his wheelchair along with my video at the exhibition:

Mark with Christopher Reeve's chair at FAIL BETTER exhibition

In preparation for the South Pole Race, I learnt a lot about Shackleton, Scott and Amundsen, the polar explorers who carved those first trails into the Antarctic ice. They were the pioneers – that was their privilege, their courage, their risk. They charted the unknown world showing the way for the rest of us. 100 years on I followed in their tracks as I became the first blind person to race to the South Pole.

18 months after the race a fall from a second story window nearly killed me. I broke my back and the damage to my spinal cord left me paralysed. Now I am inspired by the vision of another explorer – Christopher Reeve. I am travelling in his tracks.

He dreamed of empty wheelchairs. He and his wife Dana were the hub around which new global collaborations formed with the aim of curing paralysis and they forged ahead with intelligence and ambition. Sadly Christopher died in 2004 from complications related to his paralysis before their ambition was realised; Dana died almost two years later from cancer.

But the legacy they left us is strong. In a world that has failed to discover the cure for spinal cord injury Christopher has shown me the way. He explored his own body, exercising his atrophied muscles with functional electrical stimulation, doing what he could to weight bear, to stand and to walk his paralysed limbs.

So now I roll to the gym every day in my wheelchair to explore the possibility of spinal cord injury recovery using aggressive physical therapy and high-dose electrical stimulation. I strap my paralysed limbs into my Ekso Bionics robotic legs and I walk. I walk miles and miles of uncharted steps towards the frontier of recovery.

I believe a cure for spinal cord injury is possible. Success is our objective. And we know that in our pursuit of a wildly ambitious goal, the potential for failure travels with us. If there is no risk of failure, it’s probably not worth pursuing.


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