Mark McColl, chairman of Lakeshore Foundation and a longtime patient of UAB Spain Rehabilitation Center (SRC), is the 2020 recipient of SRC’s Ambassador of Hope Award. The annual award goes to a disabled individual whose courage and determination inspire hope in others who face the challenges of disability.
McColl, 61, is a native of Chattanooga, Tenn., and a graduate of the University of Alabama. He began a successful career in engineering in the 1980s, starting in Houston and ending up in Birmingham, where he eventually took a position with Rust Engineering. It was there that McColl earned such accolades as ISA Young Engineer of the Year in 1988 and Rust Engineer of the Year in 1990. In 1995 he started his own company, Process Automation and Simulation Services (PASS), which grew to more than 50 employees at its peak before McColl retired in 2011.
It was not the early retirement he wanted. It was instead the inevitable result of McColl’s decades-long journey with a spinal cord injury that, over time, robbed him of much of his mobility.
“I didn’t have the typical sudden, acute spinal cord injury,” McColl says. “It was a disc rupture that slowly developed. In 2000, I began losing sensation in my left leg and having weakness in my right. Since I wasn’t having any problems with my arms or hands, my doctor assumed that I had problems in the lumbar region. He ordered imaging of that area and put me in physical therapy. By the time I began to lose use of my right leg, additional imaging showed that I had a severe cervical rupture.”
His condition was the first stage of spine deterioration and led to years of surgeries and treatments. The first surgery was a removal of the ruptured disc and a fusion of his C6 and C7 vertebrae, but as weakness in McColl’s legs increased and bladder problems emerged, he sought care from UAB Medicine neurosurgeon Mark Hadley, MD. In 2001, McColl underwent surgery to redo the fusion of the cervical vertebrae, which had failed.
McColl began doing outpatient physical therapy at Lakeshore Rehabilitation Hospital in 2003 and then joined the Lakeshore Foundation in 2004 to continue therapy. Weakness in his legs and right side progressed, so he sought treatment at multiple medical centers around the country. By 2007, McColl still had no answers for why he continued to lose sensation and function, other than the original damage to his cervical cord.
At that time, McColl was still managing the engineering firm he had started in 1995. “By 2009 I could barely walk, initially requiring one cane and then two, and I was limited to short distances, he says. “At the same time I was staying in good shape through physical therapy.”
As an engineer interested in new technologies, at each stage of loss McColl would find new devices that allowed him to remain as active as possible. He began using a Segway, a two-wheeled, self-balancing personal transportation device that seemed ideal for his needs, as he could ride it long distances and then use his canes for the final few steps. Soon after that adaptation, he began needing crutches to move short distances. In late 2010, McColl retired from the firm he founded to pursue what he calls a “last-ditch effort” to stay out of a wheelchair. He would tell people that his new job was now “full-time physical therapy.”
McColl traveled to Germany in 2011, where a surgeon replaced his L4/L5 disc with an artificial disc. A year later, follow-up imaging revealed that the section required fixation, which is a procedure used to internally set and stabilize fractured bones.
“It was one of the toughest things I had ever gone through,” he says. “I really didn’t think I could endure a second round of that, with the surgery, recovery, and travel being so grueling.”
Instead, McColl returned to UAB Medicine to again receive care from Dr. Hadley, who performed the lumbar fixation. The surgery was successful, but it hastened McColl’s inevitable decline to a wheelchair and a bladder and bowel program.
“At that point, I caught a major break in my journey,” McColl says. “My three weeks as an inpatient at Spain Rehab were under the care of Reid Warren and Alex York, a great pairing of physical and occupational therapists who were not reluctant to push me hard. I was lucky to have that team, because I figure if you are going to face the challenge of PT/OT anyway, you may as well go as far as possible. So you need that coaching and pushing on a lot of days when you might not try as hard on your own.”
A Peculiar Positive View
McColl says that a sense of humor, a positive outlook, and a willingness to push his limits are the only ways he has been able to manage his disability. With self-deprecating humor, McColl does note that you have to be careful what you wish for in that respect.
“For my first day of inpatient therapy, I didn’t have my usual therapists, and we were done in an hour,” McColl says. “Being a smart aleck, I asked the PT, ‘Is that all you’ve got?’ I was kidding around, but for her, my remark was the wrong challenge – even as a joke. She continued my therapy for another 30 minutes to show me what a real physical challenge felt like. I found out later that she was a bodybuilder! I tell this story often to show that you can always find humor, even in the midst of medical challenges and setbacks, and also to persuade others that they can go farther than they think they can, given the right circumstances, the right care teams, and a positive frame of mind.”
McColl says he understands that it’s an odd way to look at his situation, but he insists that going into the wheelchair actually improved his quality of life.
“Before that, especially when I was using crutches, just getting around or worrying about going to the bathroom would complicate daily life, to say the least,” he says. “It was painful and socially limiting too, since I was capable of maybe one outing a day. Moving to the wheelchair, along with making the change to catheterization for the bladder issues, made almost everything easier. So my daily focus became rehab at Lakeshore, and the wheelchair changed a lot of that, too.”
McColl says he was spending 3-4 hours at Lakeshore each day, between time in the pool, the fitness center, and playing wheelchair sports such as rugby, football, softball, and tennis.
“By 2014, I had been a member at Lakeshore for 10 years,” McColl says. “I guess they were thinking, ‘We need to get some work out of this guy.’ So in sheer desperation they asked me to be a board member. I was excited because it was a chance for me to give back to the organization that had given me so much.”
A Difficult Setback and New Adventure
In 2016, McColl suddenly faced what he regards as the most difficult period of all. After experiencing new numbness and weakness in his left leg, he underwent surgery to replace the screws and rods that had been placed in his back in 2012 and extend them to L3. The day after surgery, he fractured the L3 vertebra when he twisted to one side. This led to more surgery to extend the screws and rods to L2. Unfortunately, that vertebra fractured less than two weeks later, while McColl was at Spain Rehabilitation Center. This required two additional surgeries, with screws and rods extended all the way to T8.
McColl developed an infection and remained in the hospital for an extended period of time. Then he transferred back to SRC as an inpatient for another three weeks. All told, he was undergoing and recovering from surgeries from early November 2016 until two days before Christmas.
“It was definitely at my lowest point,” McColl says. “I know that because it’s the only time I briefly lapsed into a phase of depression. But you do what you have to do. Undergoing all the procedures and therapies for two full months set me back physically, too. At that point I knew it would be the wise, safe choice to give up wheelchair sports. I began looking for other activities to fill my time.”
Ever the engineer, McColl took an interest in 3D printing, specifically in creating devices for people with disabilities. In 2018, he and another Lakeshore member, Clay Bracket, formed Ability Tech Solutions. The company designs innovative items such as beverage holders and keychain clips that attach to wheelchairs. They also patented an automatic wheelchair lock.
“Most people with disabilities also struggle financially,” McColl says. “We wanted to make affordable items, so that was part of the design challenge. Clay, who has incomplete quadriplegia, and I both see ourselves as ideal designers because we understand the particular needs of people in wheelchairs. My getting involved with 3D printing just shows you that there’s always something out there if you look for it. For me, this experience is the textbook example of, ‘Okay, if this chapter of my life has to end, then what is my new chapter about? What can I accomplish? What’s the next adventure?’”
‘Shortest Path to a Better Life’
In 2017, McColl was approached to become vice-chair of the board of the Lakeshore Foundation, and he became chairman two years later. Another opportunity arose from his relationship with Reid Warren, manager of UAB Medicine Inpatient Rehabilitation Therapy.
“One day I was at Spain Rehab to get an X-ray,” McColl recalls. “I happened to see Reid, and he told me he was interested in getting Spain inpatients to visit Lakeshore Foundation and show them what’s possible. The idea was to let these patients see people like themselves playing sports, being independent, and leading full lives. I told him it was an awesome idea and to let me know what I could do to help make it happen.”
Warren says the patient relationship grew into a friendship. “Mark was one of my most memorable patients,” Warren says. “His infectious optimism and desire to better our community made a lasting impression, and I am grateful for the friendship we’ve maintained through the years. He has been an outstanding leader for Lakeshore Foundation.”
The annual Ambassador of Hope Award is the formal recognition of McColl’s many years of passion and advocacy for Birmingham’s rehabilitation community. He says years of experience with this community have provided him with an important perspective on his own condition.
“One key aspect of my situation is that the physical decline took place over a period of almost two decades,” McColl says. “My slow transition to various stages of disability softened the emotional and mental blows. Many patients I have met at Spain and at Lakeshore experienced a sudden, catastrophic injury that instantly changed their life forever. They had no opportunity to prepare. So I‘m extremely grateful that I have had the luxury of time to adjust. Additionally, I know many, many people who are dealing with much more challenging conditions than I am.”
As for being regarded as an ambassador of hope or a source of inspiration, McColl emphasizes that his approach is that of an engineer who has chosen a specific, logical strategy.
“Maybe it’s the engineer in me talking, but I think a good attitude is just the logical choice,” he says. “Many people credit me with fortitude because I maintain a positive outlook, but by choosing to stay positive, I’m just selecting the shortest path to a better quality of life. It’s a strategy. I’m going to feel better about things, other people hopefully will enjoy being around me, and I can make the most of the time given to me.”
Click here to learn more about UAB Spain Rehabilitation Center.