What happened to young farmer who lost both arms in accident?

News-DemocratMarch 26, 2014 


About 20 years ago or so, a boy in the Dakotas lost his arms in a farming accident. I remember that after he walked back to his house, he climbed into a bathtub so he wouldn't get blood on the carpet. What happened to him? -- K.G., of Belleville

Growing up, John Wayne Thompson reportedly hated being in front of crowds, enjoying instead the quiet life on his family's farm outside Hurdsfield, N.D.

Then, in just a few ghastly, almost unimaginable seconds, the 18-year-old high school senior was literally hurled into the international spotlight. He doesn't remember all of that terrible morning, but he fell into a piece of machinery that whirled him around and then threw him 20 feet -- minus both arms.

Now, 30 surgeries later, Thompson says he is still remembered as "the kid in the bathtub." Although both arms were successfully reattached, he still can't button a coat, write legibly or shake a hand. But in the past 20 years, he has written a book and run for public office. Now living in Minot, N.D., he also has spent countless hours in front of the crowds he once avoided, talking about farm safety and urging people to persevere despite his own ongoing struggles.

Jan. 11, 1992, was the day that changed Thompson's life forever. His parents had driven to Bismarck, leaving John, the youngest of the family's three children, alone, according to the story that would wind up in dozens of papers. After sleeping late, John finally attacked his major chore about noon -- dumping barley from a truck onto an augur that would carry the grain into a storage bin.

But after shoveling the barley from his dad's Ford pickup, he jumped off the truck, slipped on a patch of ice and slid toward the rotating shaft that connected the augur to a tractor. In a split-second, first one arm and then the other was sucked into the shaft that spins from nine to 17 times a second. John was whirled around and around before his arms were severed just below the shoulders and he was flung 20 feet.

When he regained consciousness, he tried to lift himself up -- only to discover both of his arms were gone.

"I was against a tractor tire," he told the Los Angeles Times a year later. "So I put my head against it and just stood up. I looked again for my arms. It was pretty red where they'd been. ... I went berserk, screaming for a few seconds."

But then, determined not to die, he gathered his wits and rushed about 400 feet to his house. He kicked in the front door and went to the phone. After misdialing the first time with his nose, he grabbed a pen with his mouth and punched out his girlfriend's number.

Fortunately, his body had gone into shock, which lowered his blood pressure and limited his blood loss. Still, worried about staining his mother's carpet, he went to the bathroom and, with the family toy poodle, Tinker, eased himself down into the tub to await help.

By that evening, John was on a hospital operating table in Minneapolis. His arms, which were recovered relatively intact, were still viable. The lead surgeon, Dr. Allen Van Beek, had done two successful double-arm reattachments in the past. Seven hours later, both of John's upper limbs were back on.

At first, the family wanted to keep the story quiet, but when rumors of their son's death began to spread, they changed their minds. Soon, John was getting visits from Emilio Estevez, calls from Bette Midler and gifts from John Mellencamp. Victoria Principal even talked about a movie.

After lengthy rehabilitation, John enrolled at the University of Mary near Bismarck, but didn't graduate. Instead, he went on a speaking tour for a couple of years and then wrote "Home in One Piece," which became a Midwest bestseller. Later he ran for a seat in the North Dakota Legislature and worked as a real estate agent in Minot.

Although he quickly learned to drive a custom-equipped car, he has limited use of arms that won't fully straighten and hands that are always in a fist. So he slips already buttoned shirts over his head, types instead of writes and greets friends with fist bumps.

In a recent update in the Bismarck Tribune, Thompson, now 40, is unemployed and living on disability as his physical strength continues to deteriorate. He is considering moving to warmer climes to escape the harsh North Dakota winters that worsen the arthritis in his arms. Still, he says, close friends and a loving family help make life good.

"I say, 'I had my arms ripped off' and pretty much leave it at that," he says when people ask him to tell his story for the umpteenth time. "It's just something that happened."

Today's trivia

Why in the world did they name a town in Arizona "Snowflake"?

Answer to Wednesday's trivia: Workers looking for the most tips should either move to or stay right here in Illinois. According to a study of tens of millions of transactions just released by the payment service Square, 61.1 percent of customers in Illinois tip, tops in the country. (Colorado and Montana were second and third at 60.8 and 60.7; Missouri was down the list at 57.2.) And not only were they most likely to tip, but their gratuities were among the best. While Alaskans gave an extra 17 percent on average, Illinoisans were right up there at 16.5. At the bottom? Only 38 percent of those in Delaware deigned to tip and even then gave just 14 percent. The study covered restaurants, taxis and other small vendors, although it was limited to credit card charges.

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or rschlueter@bnd.com or call 618-239-2465.

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