A Million Nerves: Mark Maloney's Fight to Walk and the Tech that Helped Him

By Andrea Knowlton

Afew seconds. That's all it took to change Mark Maloney's life forever. One June 3rd, 2020, the 84-year-old was riding his bike on a trail along Fountain Creek—one he'd ridden many times before. "Something happened—I'm not sure what," says Mark, now 87, of Monument, Colorado, "but my eyes closed and I went into a twilight zone. My last memory is seeing a bunch of rocks next to a creek." He hit the rocks going 20 miles per hour and hurtled headlong into a boulder that cracked both his helmet and his C3 vertebrae.

Biking Accident Paralyzed Former Military Man

A retired army lieutenant colonel, Mark lived a more active lifestyle than most people a quarter his age. He started running at 55, winning 19 of his first 21 races in his age group. He was also an avid hiker, traversing over 400 miles of the Colorado Trail and climbing mountains, including the highest peak in the United States, Mount Whitney.

A man in a red shirt and hiking gear poses on a hiking trail next to a sign that says: Mount Whitney Trail.

When his knees started bothering him, he switched to biking, an activity he passionately enjoyed, logging 5,000 miles one year. "I loved it, but ultimately it was my Waterloo," he says, referring to the battle where Napoleon Bonaparte was finally defeated in the Napoleonic Wars. Everything he knew, his entire way of life, came to a standstill on that devastating day.

"When I woke up in the hospital, I was on a ventilator," says Mark, "I was in a state of shock, not knowing what happened to me." Mark was fully paralyzed. He endured nine hours of surgery and had 16 screws inserted into his neck "to keep my head as straight as possible," and that was only the beginning. "I spent a total of five months in two different hospitals, including Memorial Main Hospital and the Aurora VA Medical Center."

Recovery Hinged on His Supportive Family and Indominable Will

Margie Maloney, 85, Mark's wife of 65 years, recalls those difficult months. "I got a call from the nurse. She said that Mark was in an accident and he's not moving." Margie says she was hit so hard in the beginning that her daughter and son-in-law were allowed into the hospital to take over, even though hospitals highly limited visitors due to the pandemic.

One doctor told her she should just let Mark go. "I could hardly function for those first few months," she says. It was a haze of doctors, caregivers, and family, all who jumped in to help.

One can hardly blame Margie for her reaction. The man to whom she was wed for almost three quarters of her life lay motionless in a hospital bed. Mark and Margie met at a dance at The University of California Berkeley, where they both attended college. "I decided I was going to dance one dance with each guy," says Margie. Instead, she danced all night with Mark.

Nine days later, Mark proposed. He'd already put his name in for married housing at the school. 15 months later they were married. "People said it was 'too fast won't last'" laughs Mark. 65 years of marriage, two kids and eight grandchildren proved those people wrong. "I grew up having goals. I've always had goals. My number one goal was marrying Margie." And now, there they were: Mark fighting for his life, and Margie getting by moment by moment.

Black and white photo of a young 50s era couple smiling on their wedding day.

At first, Mark was just surviving. "I looked forward to eating ice chips," he says, "imagine looking forward to just eating ice chips?" When he started asking his doctors about his chances of recovery, the prognosis was bleak; that he wouldn't walk again, that he wouldn't taste food again. He had a bout of pneumonia that rendered him unable to eat orally for almost three months.

Mark started to wonder if anybody had ever recovered from something like this. One doctor told him that recovering the use of his limbs required "millions of nerves that have to reconnect." One constant between every response was that it depended on the individual. It depended on Mark. And Mark, a man with goals, a man with an insatiable need to climb the next peak or win the next race, decided to fight.

Mark is no stranger to fighting. He graduated from the University of California - Berkely with a degree in The Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC), went into the reserve army, then the regular army. He only planned to be in the army for six months, but stayed for 21 years instead, retiring as a lieutenant colonel.

He was deployed all over the world—Ethiopia, Germany, the Azors and Vietnam. He remained steadfast as he served his country. Now, amid the greatest battle of his life, his spirit remained dedicated to himself, his family and his desire to thrive amidst seemingly insurmountable circumstances.

Black and white photo of three men in Army dress uniforms. One is pinning a medal on one of the two men standing at attention.

Lite Run Gait Trainer Gait Trainer Changed the Game

Mark started doing physical therapy at the Aurora VA Hospital as an inpatient. They used all manner of sophisticated machines to motivate his recovery. While he was there, Margie was unable to come see him due to the pandemic.

"It was a pretty lonely three months," he says. Eventually, he was able to discharge back home, where he received support from independent caregivers, his kids and Margie. He started outpatient therapy, where he did gait training—a set of exercises designed to help a patient walk.

In August 2022, a physical therapist mentioned that the hospital received a new machine called the Lite Run Gait Trainer. They asked him if he'd like to give it a shot. Mark was willing to try anything, so he did. It was unlike anything he'd used before. Rather than being slung to the ceiling to remove body weight so he could walk, he wore special 'space pants' in conjunction with a mechanized walker to ambulate. He tried it a couple of times in the fall of 2022 and liked it but stopped to try some other options. He asked to try it again in early 2023, and "that's when I really started to take off."

According to Lite Run Director and CEO Michael Bankowski, the Lite Run MarsWalk is a game changer for gait training. And Michael would know. He is the son of a nurse who worked in nursing homes throughout her entire career at the VA. He has experience as a nursing home administrator, a caregiver and owner of a home healthcare company.

He's watched countless physical therapy sessions, and yet no gait training equipment compares to the MarsWalk in his mind. He explains that the MarsWalk uses differential air pressure in a pneumatic reservoir to push body weight up while force goes down. The machine can take off so much weight that one can actually lift off of the ground and float, all while putting less than one PSI of pressure on a patient's body.

His passion for the Lite Run Gait Trainer is what motivated him to join the Lite Run company as CEO and director. Bankowski travels all over the United States to demonstrate the product for nursing homes and VA hospitals. It was Bankowski who installed the MarsWalk at the Aurora VA hospital, where Mark was doing his outpatient physical therapy. "The therapists there dedicated hours of their time to using the machine and testing its limits, even doing the moonwalk as they tried it."

A man is walking in a crowded road race with the help of the Lite Run Gait Trainer.

From Paralysis to Completing 1K Walk with MarsWalk Spacesuit Technology

When Mark started using the MarsWalk in earnest, he was able to walk about 1000 feet. Each time he used it, he made more and more progress. Mark says he's up to 3,456 feet in just a few months. His walking progress is why the Aurora VA hospital asked to sponsor him in the 2023 BOLDERBoulder. The race, one of the largest 10k races in the country with about 45,000 attendees, is a favorite of Mark's. He ran it annually and is in the record books for his age group. While he couldn't run like before, he was determined to complete a 1k walk between the ninth and 10th kilometer marks using the MarsWalk machine.

Mark's goal in doing the walk was to both test his endurance and to show others who are in a similar situation to him that there is hope. "I want that guy sitting in his living room to see me walking and think— hey, I can do that too!" Mark also wanted to promote the MarsWalk. He feels it played and continues to play a huge part in why he's been able to walk so well and so far. Michael brought the MarsWalk he used for the event, and then remained to support Mark on the walk. "I think people were affected by seeing him in the race. It's positive and inspirational, perhaps a way for them to take a step in a new direction," says Bankowski.

There were hurdles to overcome. Mark was concerned about the heat, since people with spinal cord injuries often have trouble regulating their temperature. He was also concerned about the hill he had to both climb and descend. But Mark had so much love and support behind him—his kids and grandkids, many of his therapists, doctors and caregivers. They walked with him to show him how proud they were of his progress and determination. They walked with him to show the world that their husband, father, patient and friend was and is loved and valued. They walked with him to give him the strength and support he needed to finish the race.

"One of the things you want to do when you're running the race, and you're running for time, is you want to finish strong," says Mark. "I wrote an outline of my life story starting when I was a young, going into college and the military, to now. I want to finish strong. I want to show the world that I did the best I could given a tough situation."

Mark crossed the finish line at Folsom Stadium, walking at a pace that shocked even his physical therapists. He stood on the track with thousands of cheering onlookers, having achieved a goal that seemed impossible. Amidst his incredible achievement, Mark was not one to rest on his laurels. "I can't wait to do a 2k next year," he said. Anyone watching Mark's journey wouldn't doubt his ability to achieve that goal for a minute.

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