Domhnall MacAuley is a CMAJ Associate Editor and a professor of primary care in Northern Ireland, UK
“Unbreakable” is the life story of Mark Pollock, an athlete, adventurer and patient. This is no American schmaltzy reconstructed movie. Don’t expect a Hollywood ending. A university contemporary of Mark's, a filmmaker, had been making a documentary of his life. Neither of them could have anticipated what lay ahead.
Mark was born very short sighted and had a severe retinal detachment as a child. A second unrepairable detachment as a university student left him blind. This is where the documentary begins.
I knew of Mark and, although we were not contemporaries, I could identify with his childhood as a bespectacled schoolboy. We had rowed the same rivers, run the same beaches, and competed in the same events. Losing his sight didn’t hold him back; indeed, he turned disaster into a challenge and set off on a life’s journey as a blind athlete, achieving some remarkable endurance feats- marathons at altitude, in the desert, competing in the double handed Round Ireland Yacht race and racing to Antarctica. This was heroic Boys Own stuff of legends. Overcoming blindness to achieve greatness. And it also became his career both as an adventurer and motivational speaker. It led to “” an amazing mass participation event- celebrated by runners, walking, jogging and racing in the mid November night-time darkness. For Canadians, there is a pop-up event in Stanley Park in Vancouver on November 12th.
An incredible story so far and, if the film had ended there, it would have been one of life’s great parables, illustrating the triumph of spirit over adversity.
Sadly, we knew the rest of the story. Falling from the window of a house onto a concrete patio while at Henley Royal Regatta with his rowing friends, Mark was left unconscious and paralysed. After a break in filming, we see a physically and psychologically damaged Mark, now a patient, start to contemplate and deal with the awful reality of his future. We see him in the spinal injuries unit and then in a wheelchair. And, like a hammer blow, you realise the overwhelming difficulties he faced as a blind person in a wheelchair.
He wasn’t alone. Simone his fiancé, a lawyer with film star looks and an indomitable spirit, was with him throughout. As you watch them dance in opening shots of the movie, sharing happier times, you forget that Mark has never seen how she looks, her entrancing smile nor gazed into those beautiful eyes. They had been due to get married just a few weeks after Mark's injury and, despite the catastrophic change in circumstances, she was there throughout. And, she was there too at the question and answer session, together with Mark, and Ross Whitaker, the filmmaker, on the evening I saw the film. They hadn’t got married. They said they didn’t need to. When in intensive care, Mark had said it was okay for her to leave – they agreed to take it six months at a time. Mark laughed as he told us he still passes his six monthly reviews.
Mark gradually regained his spirit and mental strength through his rehabilitation. He learned to walk with a robotic exoskeleton, he brought together different strands of expertise in spinal research and took part in pilot studies. But, unlike the Hollywood dream world we have come to expect at the movies, he never regained power in his legs. And, a trip to Norway highlighted the impossibility of regaining his former life as an adventurer. He did, however, find a new purpose. His quest is no longer to push his personal limits, but to .
As doctors we know the reality of the ending of this kind of story and it isn't a Hollywood one. The incontinence, the bed sores, the loss of sexual function and identity - these are mentioned briefly but not dwelt on in the film. But sometimes happiness comes when you are looking for something else and even in the face of great adversity. Life is cruel and unfair. Some buckle, some just about manage, and some continue to make a remarkable contribution to the world despite everything.