Northern Ireland

Robotic help for blind Holywood athlete Mark Pollock

Mark Pollock
Image caption The robotic legs detect when Mark puts weight on one foot

In a sports centre in Trinity College in Dublin, Mark Pollock is taking new steps in his remarkable battle against adversity.

With the help of his friend Simon O'Donnell, the adventure athlete from Holywood, County Down, straps robotic legs onto his own lower limbs.

Then they tap a command into a keypad, and Mark eases his way into a standing position.

Aided by two crutches, the 35-year-old starts to edge forward, one foot after the other.

The robotic legs, with motors at the hip, do the work.

"It feels fantastic to be standing," Mark said.

"And of course, now that I have these robotic legs, I can actually walk - well, sort of."

The legs detect when Mark puts weight on one foot - then moves the other foot forward.

A number of hospitals have bought this particular type of robotic aid for people with disabilities.

But Mark is the first individual in the world to own it.

He is still hopeful that one day, he may regain the use of his legs.

"If there is to be a cure for paralysis over the long term, I suspect it's going to be a combination of training, robotics and some kind of medical intervention," Mark added.

"I'm experimenting and seeing what's possible.

"If it doesn't work for me, hopefully it'll feed into a solution for other people in the future."

Mark is training with Simon several times a week, and is slowly getting used to the new equipment.

Simon walks behind Mark and helps him to change direction.

Determination

Four years ago, Simon and Mark were partners in a rather different venture.

They were part of a team which trekked to the South Pole - Mark became the first blind person to make the journey on foot.

It was one of many adventure races he took part in after he lost his sight at the age of 22.

But in the summer of 2010, Mark was paralysed from the waist down after a fall.

"For the first 18 months after the accident, I felt unmotivated, broken, in a pretty dark place," Mark said.

But he has drawn on all his energy and determination to tackle his biggest challenge yet.

And he has had help from supporters all over the world.

In a couple of weeks' time, sponsored runs will be held in Stormont, Dublin, Belfast, London and New York.

Hundreds of runners are signing up to take part and raise money for Mark's treatment and other charities which help people with disabilities.

Mark says support like that meant he "couldn't not" keep going.

"There's life after blindness, and there's life after paralysis," he said.

"I'm dealing with it in a way that I think has worked in the past - by trying to do interesting and exciting things to squeeze out the bad stuff."

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