COLUMN ONE : Reluctant Hero Longs for His Past : John Thompson captivated the nation when his arms were reattached after a farm accident. Now, he is tired of celebrity and wishes folks would see he’s no icon, just an ordinary guy.
This is the ghastly way a North Dakota farm boy became an American hero: While loading barley into a machine, he slipped on some ice. He tottered against a metal bar that was spinning in a blur parallel to the ground. His shirt was reeled in, then his hands. For a few seconds, his body was a human propeller, twirling head over heels. The force pried off his arms just below the shoulders and pitched the rest of him 20 feet away.
With his limbs suddenly gone, John Wayne Thompson glanced at his wounds. He staggered 100 yards to his house, turning the doorknob with his mouth. He phoned for help, punching in the numbers with a pen clenched between his teeth. Worrying what his mom might say about all the blood that was spotting the carpet, he crouched in the bathtub as he waited.
The ambulance crew found the missing arms. In a five-hour relay, 18-year-old Thompson and his appendages were taken by road and air from the farm here in Hurdsfield to a hospital in Minneapolis. He was placed in a pool of magnified light. Microsurgeons sorted among his severed parts, matching up the nerves and blood vessels and sewing them up with needles thinner than a human hair.
When the story hit the news last year, the teen-ager’s reassembled body seemed to become a living monument to the true grit of the plains farmer. The soul’s appetite for heroes is enormous, and this was one spunky, can-do kid. His survival instincts were equated with valor, his common sense elevated to ingenuity. Thousands wrote him. Donations topped $700,000, much of it the well-wishing yield of church bake sales and children’s milk money.
A year and a half has passed since fate plucked Thompson from the Dakota grain fields. After 15 operations, he has made a remarkable recovery, impossible though it is to completely repair what a machine has torn asunder. His forearms do not rotate, and his fingers are curled into claws, rigid and unable to grasp. Some gains lie ahead. Still more surgery should open his hands. Further nerve regeneration may reawaken some touch in his fingers.
Therapy has been an apprenticeship in substitute ways to eat and dress and otherwise conquer the mundane. But oddly enough, he has found it easier to cope with the frustrations of his handicaps than with the peculiarity of his fame.
What was it the magazines called him? “Too tough to die . . . the comeback kid . . . astonishingly brave.” Well, maybe he is an all-American boy, but if so, he considers himself of the beer-swigging, smart-aleck, pedal-to-metal variety and nobody who ought to be held up as an inspiration to a million families.
The fuss has had him playing against type. “Until maybe a month ago, I was trying to be the perfect kid, not drinking anymore or smoking or swearing,” he said. “I felt like it was expected of me, with everyone watching every move I made. You wouldn’t believe it. TV camera crews followed me around at my prom, which sucked. My graduation was a circus with all the satellite trucks.
“Well, I want to go back to the way I used to be. Screw everybody. I like to have fun, be rude to people, be a hell-raiser. Of course, around here if you spin your tires on Main Street, they think you’re a hell-raiser.”
Hurdsfield has 72 people and five churches (down from six). Most everyone is somehow related to everyone else within a 50-mile radius. These days, John drives the priciest pickup hereabouts and, as always, scoffs at the speed limits. He has let his hair grow long and sports an earring. Down in Bismarck, where he attends college, he finds himself a popular ladies’ man, what with the women knowing who he is and all. That’s the good side of celebrity.
The bad part is all the damn gossip and jealousy. “People think I’m living the great life, that I’ll never have to work. They’d love to be John Thompson because I have a lot of money and nice vehicles and I’m famous and have girlfriends. Well, if people had to spend one week going through what I go through, with all the stress, they wouldn’t talk so much.”
By his reckoning, all this hero and inspiration stuff is really flipped out. He has never entirely understood what the big deal was. The only life he saved was his own and, given the choices, what was so special about that?
“What was I supposed to do, just lie there?” he asked. “C’mon, I mean, what would you do?”
That morning, his parents had gone to Bismarck, 90 miles away. John, the youngest of the three Thompson children and the only one still living at home, slept late. By the time he went out, the noontime sun had moistened the skin of a January frost. His chore was to unload barley from a dump truck, using a grooved shaft--an auger--that carried grain to a bin as a conveyor belt would. A tractor engine supplied the power. Connecting the engine to the auger was a flat, 1 1/2-inch bar called a power takeoff. As the bar spun, the auger turned.
Farming is among the most dangerous of jobs; some studies show that each year an injury occurs on one in five farms. Shields are sold to fit over power takeoffs, but the safeguards get in the way when the equipment is cleaned and often break. Many farmers would just as soon do without them. That’s how the Thompsons felt. How risky could it be? John and his brother Mick used to bounce their feet off the thing just passing the time.
After John got the rig going, there wasn’t much for him to do but watch. He began to play with Tuffy, the brawnier of the two family dogs. John’s stumble into the takeoff happened so lickety-split he barely remembers it.
He was out cold for a time and cannot recall landing on the frozen ground. When he did come to, his eyes swiveled and his startled mind went over the usual checklist: Am I hurt? Am I bleeding? Is this a dream?
“I was lying on my left side,” he said. “I looked at my right and couldn’t see my arm and thought it was broken. Then I tried to use my left arm to lift myself up. That’s when I saw it was off, that both of them were off.
“I was against a tractor tire, 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.”
The nearest farm was two miles away; the wind swallowed his shouts anyway. He walked toward home.
The body’s natural defenses were at work. Shock set in, which lowered his blood pressure and minimized blood loss. His nerves were in a shock state, too, suppressing the pain. He was thinking straight, maybe even better than usual. For one thing, he understood there was a problem ahead. He would have to get into the empty house.
His first try was at the sliding glass door in back, off the kitchen. A bone--the humerus--was sticking out from his left shoulder. He wedged it into the metal handgrip but could not manage enough leverage to give it a pull.
He then hurried around front, through the garage. Tuffy was watching his every move. John kicked at a side door but his legs had little power without arms to aid his balance. So he knelt. His mouth worked at the gold knob.
Down the hall was a phone in a small room used as an office. He needed to open a second door. He smashed a hole in it with his knee, but then changed tactics to his mouth again.
There is no 911 in Hurdsfield. John’s thought was to call a girlfriend and he managed to use his nose to press the numbers. Damn her! The line was busy.
Then he tried his cousin Tammy, but this time his nose proved a clumsy tool and he misdialed. He switched to a pen.
“Tammy!” he yelled.
“Yeah,” she said.
“You’ve got to get an ambulance out here right away!”
“OK, what’s the matter?”
“I can’t feel my arms. They’re gone.”
“Who is this?”
If this was one of John’s jokes, she’d kill him. But Tammy went ahead and called her stepmother and told her to alert the volunteer ambulance crew in Bowdon, 11 miles away. Then she called her mom to get a ride up the road to the farm.
When Renee and Tammy Thompson rushed into the modest, ranch-style house, blood was speckled across the walls and floors. “John!” Renee shouted.
“I’m in here,” he called from the bathroom. “Don’t let Tammy come in. Tammy, you stay out!”
Renee entered alone and could glimpse only a little of her nephew behind the shower curtain. “I don’t want you to see me,” he said.
She pulled the curtain, anyhow. It was horrifying. “You’re going to be fine,” she said.
He wanted some water. And he had a question: “Do I still have a back?”
“Your back is great,” she answered. “It’s just perfect.”
Afraid he would fall, Renee helped John out of the tub and sat him on the toilet. He began to calm down. He talked sensibly. In a while, he was even being his regular wise-guy self.
“I wanted to quit smoking, but this isn’t how I wanted to stop,” he said.
His aunt tried to soothe him. She kept saying the ambulance would be there in just a second. So John counted out loud: one thousand one, one thousand two.
“Time’s up,” he declared and then cussed up a storm.
Thompson was conscious when he got to Minneapolis. His heart rate and blood gases were good. For a guy with his arms ripped off, he was in fine shape. By getting in out of the cold, he had kept his body temperature from plunging. By huddling in one spot and not thrashing around, he had cut down on blood loss.
The ambulance crew also had done well. They had wrapped John’s arms in plastic garbage bags and put them on ice, slowing the decay of muscle tissue. On ice--cold but not frozen--the arms could remain viable for 14 to 16 hours. Best of all, they were not mangled. The interior tubing and circuitry seemed fixable.
The surgeon was a plus too. Double-arm reattachments are extraordinarily rare, but Dr. Allen Van Beek, the closest specialist, had already done three of them (two successfully). A power takeoff also figured in one of the cases, a grain auger and the rock crusher of a gravel pit in the others.
“Beek” himself had grown up on a North Dakota farm; at age 13, he fell off a tractor that went on to roll over his legs. He well knew the body blows of agriculture. For him, meeting Thompson was a gut-wrenching moment. Whatever the surgery ahead could accomplish, the teen-ager would always be impaired.
The injured kid did not seem to understand that yet. He seemed to be oddly cavalier, as if he was about to go under a wand instead of the knife. “They told me if I came here, you’d put my arms back on,” he said.
The doctor replied honestly. To try to save your arms, he said, we have to risk your life, and there is no guarantee the arms won’t have to come off again later. John nodded. There was no question he wanted to go ahead with it.
Microsurgery is high-stakes needlework done under a microscope. An artery one-eighth inch across can be made to appear three inches wide. The needles used are sometimes too small to be seen by the naked eye, the thread so fine it floats in the air. The surgeon sits in a hydraulic, adjustable chair, his hands steadied by armrests. Even a slight tremor caused by the caffeine from a cup of coffee can hamper the delicate work.
The main part of “limb replantation” is realigning critical blood vessels and nerves and sewing them up. A wound’s location makes a huge difference. Fingers, for instance, are harder to hook up than upper arms, which require only one artery, two veins and three or four nerves. But recovery from an arm injury is inevitably more difficult; the higher up the nerves have been torn, the more irreplaceable the lost motion in the arm and hand below.
“Blood vessels are plumbing, but the nerves (during recovery) are like a tree,” Van Beek said. “When you reattach a nerve, it grows out from where it has been fixed, one-half inch to 1 1/2 inches per month. From the upper arm, that’s a long way to go. In the meantime, the muscle won’t wait; it begins to shrivel. If regeneration takes too long, muscle won’t respond when the nerve gets there.”
The anesthetized teen-ager was lying motionless on a warmed cushion meant to prevent bedsores. Three surgeons scrubbed up, one for each of the arms and an orthopedist to do the bone work. Two inches of each humerus--the bone in the upper arm--were cut off, making everything else seem longer and easier to work with. The fractured bones were both set with metal plates and six deep-threaded screws.
After that, the blood vessels were linked with 10 to 12 stitches apiece. This re-established the circulation between the arms and body but at the same time created a new danger. Accumulated poisons from the decaying arms now moved through the bloodstream, jeopardizing the body’s internal organs, especially the lungs and kidneys. Transfusions were needed, 15 pints in all, enough to replace Thompson’s entire blood supply 1 1/2 times over.
The nerves were next. “Nerves are like telephone cable, a small bundle held together by an outer casing,” Van Beek said. “In the bundle are thousands of little wires, but instead of color-coding, there are different shapes and sizes. That’s a real asset. The topography helps me to line up the nerve properly when I see it magnified.”
Once all the needlework was done, the raw patches of Thompson’s flesh were covered with skin grafts taken from his buttocks and upper thighs. Bandages held his arms in the air to reduce swelling. After the seven-hour operation, John’s condition seemed good, but it would be a week or so before the doctors had a better idea of how well the replantations had worked.
Thompson, of course, wanted to know what was what as soon as he emerged from surgery’s narcotic fog. He was told about the two inches of missing bone. “That’s OK,” he joked. “I always had trouble finding shirts that fit me.”
Van Beek had never met anyone quite like John. He was fond of him, even with that big mouth of his. John wanted to be a singer, and the Minnesota Twins baseball team later asked him to perform the national anthem before a game.
The doctor was invited as well. John took this as an opportunity to remind Van Beek about which of them was the media star. “Remember Beek,” he wisecracked, “when we go out on the field, you walk behind me.”
Soon after the surgery, it was Van Beek’s idea to go public about the accident. He said what John had done required “the epitome of courage.”
The family wasn’t so sure it wanted the attention. John’s parents, Larry and Karen, were restrained, guileless people. Farming is what they knew best, though a few bad years had left them and their 1,800 acres a hairbreadth from foreclosure. They customarily kept their troubles to themselves and wanted to handle John’s injury the same way.
But then a rumor began going around that he had died; someone had heard it at church. That settled it. Things had to be set straight.
Editors love offbeat stories that make people read out loud at the breakfast table: sacred images appearing on a tortilla, a snake crawling out of an occupied toilet. Fresh elements help; the second child lost down a well is not as fetching as the first.
Thompson’s ordeal got a big ride, coast to coast and beyond. Heavens to Betsy, the kid opened the door with his mouth! Most teen-agers are too lazy to haul out the trash, but this one was worried he’d bleed on his mom’s carpet!
Admiration gushed John’s way. Emilio Estevez dropped by. Bette Midler and Bo Jackson called. Gifts arrived from Whitney Houston and John Mellencamp. Victoria Principal had some ideas about a movie. A member from his favorite rock group, Guns N’ Roses, left off some tapes and T-shirts.
Hospital volunteers had to be recruited to handle all the mail. So many pastors came by, John wondered if he was dying and no one had summoned the guts to tell him. His sister Kim couldn’t get through to him on the phone; lots of callers were identifying themselves as John’s sister.
The Thompsons were stunned by the commotion and the publicity. Karen knew how much John loved her, but she kept reading that stuff about John’s not wanting to bleed on her raggedy old carpeting. “Each time, it was like someone stuck a 10-inch blade in me,” she said.
For weeks, the limelight refused to dim. People began to make all sorts of bizarre requests. A mother asked if her troubled son could stay with the Thompsons and get himself straightened out. Another woman simply wanted to touch John, whose blessed flesh might cure her cancer.
“Most people were nice,” Karen said, “but so many of them I had to tell, ‘John is not Jesus Christ; he cannot cure your wounds; he is not a miracle person.’ He had been built up into such a superman.”
The media’s hot lights had magnified John much as the surgical microscope had. “It helped him get through some very tough times at first,” said Lori Clemenson, his favorite nurse. “You know, it’s exciting to have studios ask you to cut a demo record and be treated like a big attraction.
“But all that kept him from doing the grieving and healing he needed to do. He wasn’t absorbing what had happened. Too many people thought he had a cape on his back, but he was just your typical 18-year-old from North Dakota.”
The mythic John Wayne Thompson presented by the media was named after the rugged actor and not his grandfathers. He was endlessly polite and not a class clown. He was an example of salt-of-the-earth farm stock and not just another of those teen-agers who cruised Main Street in a ritualized bonding of pickup trucks, beer and boredom.
It was nice to be considered a hero, but the fame had John penned up too. By Graduation Day, five months after the accident, he wanted his privacy back. Cameras were in his face as soon as he got to the ceremony. He hurried off to the library, where the nine other seniors were slipping into their caps and gowns.
“I was going nuts, bouncing off the walls,” he said. “We had to shut the doors to keep out the reporters. My friends had to protect me. They stood in front of the glass to block out all the stupid photographers.”
Graduation was not so emblematic of his new life anyhow. Reporters instead might have observed him failing time and again to put on a T-shirt. Or standing at a bathroom sink, wondering if the water was too hot.
He was ready to be serious about occupational therapy now. His first term at the University of Mary was fast approaching. How was he going to get in and out of the dorm room, make himself a meal, shampoo his hair?
Thompson did not want to use a lot of specially designed gear that might attract notice. He allowed himself only a few: jeans with a Velcro fly, a cigarette holder that fits into a cuff he can wear on his hand, a steering wheel with a triangular set of posts to help him drive with his forearms.
His awkward movements made him self-conscious. He has sung in front of huge crowds, but would not eat in the school cafeteria. He refuses to use public restrooms, afraid others will hear the rip of the Velcro and stare his way.
“There are things I can do, but I’d only do them when I’m alone,” he said. “If my socks get stuck in the dryer, I can climb in or take my shoes off and grab them with my feet. But I wouldn’t want anybody to see that.”
He has never been a great student. Once, his dream was to be a flight attendant, or maybe even a pilot. Now, his long-shot chance at a singing career is all he has in mind. Failing that, he has investments. Insurance paid most of his doctor bills, leaving him about $500,000 from the donations, he said.
His peculiar fame lingers on, though it is already fading into memory, like a game-winning touchdown people cheered one fine autumn. He still gets invitations to sing, but not as many as before. People find his face familiar but can’t quite place him. Talk about a movie has stayed just talk.
He embraces the attention and despises it at the same time, wishing he could choose only the parts he wants, the way a customer does at a store. It would be nicer if it was something he could control.
Last April, he received a prestigious Victory Award from the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Washington, given to people who show “courage in the face of adversity.” To pick up the prize, he had to take his final exams early. This was a bad idea. He flunked three courses.
“So many things were going on last semester, my head was just pounding,” he said. “The movie deal heated up, but then the thinking was that there was no ending yet with my fingers still in a fist and I ought to write a book first. . . .
“Then there were all these rumors about me. Any girl I went out with was immediately rumored to be pregnant and getting an abortion. People just kept talking like that. I was on the phone a lot, fighting with people, totally stressed out.
“I’ve got people telling me to do this and that. Some say I should’ve bought myself a Corvette or a Porsche or a Lamborghini instead of my Silverado and the Cutlass. And some say I should’ve gotten some old clunk, a ’79 Ford or something, just to show I wasn’t wasting the money people sent me.
“There has been so much stuff like that. My parents think I’m wild and need to calm down. Other people say I’m cocky. I asked how anyone could think that, and I heard it’s because of how I walk. Can you believe that? They say I roll my shoulders cocky-like because I’m famous and have gotten stuck up.
“Well, I roll my shoulders because my balance is bad. I’d never pass a (drunk-driving) test. I can’t stand perfectly straight up.
“A lot of stuff. Really, there is. I wish it was the way it used to be, you know, back then, before.”