Too Tough to Die

updated 02/03/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/03/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

THE MORNING WAS COLD AND BRIGHT as John Thompson, an 18-year-old high school senior, went about his chores on his family's 1,600-acre farm near Hurdsfield, N.Dak. After a leisurely breakfast alone that Saturday, Jan. 11, John went out to use an auger powered by a tractor to move barley into the pig-feeding bins. And then it happened. John remembers a slip on the ice, a tug on his shirt—and in a terrifying split second, both of his arms were ripped off by the spinning machinery.

Now, propped up in bed at North Memorial Medical Center near Minneapolis a week after microsurgery to reattach his arms, John may be the only person who doesn't marvel at the courage and coolness he showed in the aftermath of the terrible accident. Though wincing at pain that "feels like a nail's being pounded into me," he seems almost matter-of-fact in describing for the first time the ordeal that made news around the nation. "I'm grateful for everyone's prayers and everything, but anyone would have done what I did," he says with a shy smile and easy good manners. "You do what you have to do."

But what John Thompson did was nothing less than incredible. Like keeping his wits and running 400 feet uphill to his house with blood oozing from the stumps of his arms; like using the bone that dangled from his left shoulder to open the door; like phoning for help by using a pen clenched in his teeth to peck out the number on the touch-tone dial; like waiting for some 30 minutes alone, huddled in the bathtub so he wouldn't get blood on his mother's carpet; like helping the volunteer ambulance crew locate plastic garbage bags and ice to pack his severed arms; and finally, enduring six hours of surgery, which required 30 units of blood, making his one of a few successful double-arm reattachments ever performed in the U.S. For John's surgeon Dr. Allen Van Beek, 48, a Vietnam veteran and microsurgery specialist, it is hard to talk of the episode without voicing a sense of awe—or without tearing up when he thinks of John waiting alone for help. "John is the epitome of courage," says Van Beek. "The only other place I saw courage like this was in war. At first he thought he was going to die. That's when supernatural strength comes in. It's there in everybody. But he used it when it was needed."

Perhaps the hardships of growing up on a farm had toughened John more than most. In recent years his parents, Larry, 45, and Karen, 44, have suffered the financial difficulties of many farmers, forcing them to sell 600 acres of their land. A music enthusiast whose favorite performers are Whitney Houston, Bette Midler and Guns N' Roses, John hoped to go to college and possibly become a professional singer. One of three children—his sister, Kim Blotter, 23, lives in Fargo, and his brother, Mick, 22, is a truck driver living at home—John took special pride in handling things when his folks were away. "He's always been a quiet kid, never said much, but now you see what he's got," says Larry. "He's really something."

Still piecing together the events of that Saturday, John says it helps to talk about what happened. His parents were visiting a relative at a hospital in Bismarck, 90 miles away, leaving John home alone. It was about 11:30 A.M. when John went to unload barley from a Ford two-ton truck. He turned on the device known as a power takeoff (PTO), a small but powerful spinning shaft that in turn operates the auger, a common farm implement used to move grain. He remembers jumping down from the truck, but not much more of the actual accident. "I must have slipped," he says. "The front of my shirt got caught in the PTO. I pulled the shirt out, but my arm got caught." As best he can figure, the PTO, which was mounted on the tractor about two feet off the ground, spun him around about five times. "I was lying on the ground," he says. "I couldn't feel my left arm. I couldn't see my right arm. I thought it was bent back, but I went to pick myself up, and my arms were gone. I thought I was going to die."

In that sickening instant, he doesn't remember feeling pain or panic. "I got up, I don't know how, and sort of ran to the house," he says. "I had a bone sticking out of my left arm, and I was gonna try and open the sliding door. I got the bone into the lock, but I couldn't get it open. I went to the front, used my bone to open the screen door, then my mouth to turn the knob." Rushing into the office, he jostled the phone off the hook and tried to dial the first number that came to mind—that of his uncle, Lynn Thompson, who lives a few miles away. Three times he attempted to punch the seven digits out by using his nose, without success.

Finally he got hold of a pen with his mouth and used that to dial. On the other end, his cousin Tammy, 17, picked up. "When Tammy answered, I spit out the pen. I told her, 'This is John. Call an ambulance immediately because I'm bleeding very bad and I don't have any arms.' I kept saying that. Then I pushed the button down until I heard a dial tone. I knew Tammy wouldn't be able to call an ambulance unless I broke the connection." With the family's toy poodle. Tinker, barking all around him, John went to the bathroom, kicked open the shower curtain, crouched down in the tub to avoid staining his mom's carpet and wailed for help.

Meanwhile, Tammy, panicked and in tears, first called her stepmother, Sharon Thompson, a waitress at Hurdsfield's only restaurant, and told her to call an ambulance. Next she phoned her mother, Renee Thompson, who runs a nearby gas station, and pleaded with her to come quick. "I raced out of the station and jumped into the ear," says Renee. After picking up Tammy, she arrived at the Thompson farm in about five minutes. Inside the simple, ranch-style house they were greeted by splattered blood and the sound of John crying in the bathroom. As Renee hustled in to comfort him, he implored her to keep Tammy away. "It's real bad, Aunt Renee," he said.

It took a moment for Renee to realize how bad. "He was in the bathtub with the shower curtain covering most of him. I could just see his head," Renee recalls. "He kept repeating, 'I have no arms. I have no arms.' " For the next 20 or 30 minutes, she tried to keep his spirits up by holding and talking to him. John appeared oddly concerned with how others in his family would react to his accident. "He'd say, 'I know Dad's gonna blame himself for leaving me alone,' " says Renee. "He was very rational, very alert, didn't seem to be in pain." Nor had he lost his sense of humor. After Renee told him the ambulance would be there in a second, he promptly counted "1,001" and announced, "Well, it's not here."

When the ambulance got to the house, the crew of two women and a man had trouble concealing their shock at what they saw. "They walked into the bathroom, and their eyes kind of rolled back in their heads—just for a second," says Renee. "They were stunned. They're farm people, volunteers." John reminded the crew to retrieve his arms and directed them to the garbage bags in the kitchen, so the limbs could be packed in ice. "Mostly we get heart attacks, stroke victims," says Joan Rodacker, a four-year veteran of the Bowdon ambulance service. "If John hadn't kept his head, the outcome would have been different."

After strapping John to the stretcher and packing his arms in ice, the crew sped to St. Aloisius Medical Center, about 20 minutes away, in the town of Harvey. In the ambulance, John began complaining that his now severed hands were hurting. "It was real weird," he says. "The doctors say it was phantom pain."

By that time John had lost roughly half his blood. What apparently prevented him from bleeding to death was the fact that the arteries had quickly closed off naturally, as if a tourniquet had been applied. The attending physician, Dr. Curt Nyhus, immediately phoned Van Beek, who was on call at North Memorial hospital, a regional trauma center that has six microsurgeons skilled in limb reattachment. At 3:30 P.M. John, accompanied by a doctor, lifted off from Harvey aboard an air-ambulance plane for the two-hour flight to Minneapolis.

As in all limb-reattachment procedures, speed was critical to repairing the damage. Soon after John arrived at North Memorial, he was prepared for the operation, and then a surgical team led by Van Beek began working on his left arm, which had been severed above the elbow, while another worked simultaneously on the right, which had been torn off at the shoulder. Experts say that while the operation is not technically difficult, it is a major trauma for the body. "Fortunately, John is tremendously healthy—his lungs, kidneys, heart," says Van Beek. Since the initial operation. John has been in surgery three more times to remove dead skin and check the reattached blood vessels.

Back at home, John's medical progress is, not surprisingly, the principal topic of conversation. "In a small town," says John's friend LeAnna Opp, 17, "you get really close to your classmates." An average student, John is the photographer for the school yearbook and a star singer of the school's music program. "John's gotten more outgoing in the last few years," says LeAnna. "It's real hard to have him gone. We're making him a video and writing him letters."

At this point John's prognosis is still unclear, though every day Dr. Van Beek is more optimistic that the reattachment will be permanent. "I'll consider it a home run if he gets use of his elbows," says Van Beek. "If he gets some hand function, I'll be elated." Whatever the case, John faces another month in the hospital and at least five years of grueling physical therapy. Given what he's already experienced, it seems a safe bet that John will be up to the task. "I'm trying to figure out what I'll be able to do with my hands, how I'll finish high school, if I can drive again," says John. Himself a former North Dakota farm boy, Van Beek can especially empathize. "He's going to need a lot of support," says Van Beek. "Fortunately he has the whole world pulling for him."

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