By Margaret Nelson Karen S. Schneider
May 25, 1992 12:00 PM

Gallant first steps on a long, hard road back

IN HIS FAMILY’S MODEST NORTH DAKOTA farmhouse, John Thompson wanders from the kitchen to the living room and back, his tiny toy poodle, Tinker, barking playfully at his feet. “You think you’re real cute, don’t you,” John says with a laugh. Then, coaxing the dog onto his lap, his arms hanging rigid at his sides, John uses a knee to lift Tinker up to his face. Rubbing his nose in the poodle’s soft fur, he says quietly, “It’s the only way I can feel him.”

That John can feel Tinker at all is, by all accounts, a near miracle. Four months ago he survived a nightmarish farm accident in which both his arms were torn from his body (PEOPLE, Feb. 3). The arms were reattached eight hours later, but John’s ordeal was far from over. Though doctors say feeling will gradually return to his fingers, the teenager lives with constant frustration because his fragile, slow-healing arms will not obey his will. He is beginning to come to terms with the physical and psychological scars, enduring the frustrations of rehabilitation and even testing the subtle perils of sudden celebrity. Thus far he has struggled with impressive success. “The human soul needs heroes,” says Dr. Allen Van Beek, John’s surgeon, “and John meets the bill.”

John’s appointment with heroism began at about 11:30 A.M. on Jan. 11, when he was shoveling barley from his father’s Ford pickup into the auger, a device commonly used on farms to move grain into feeding bins. As he recalls, he jumped off the pickup, slipped on a patch of ice, tripped on the auger and fell onto the power take-off (PTO), a swiftly rotating shaft connected from a tractor to the auger. In a split second, the PTO tugged one arm. then the other, into its rapidly spinning mechanism, flinging John around and around. “The next thing I knew I was lying on the ground,” he says. “I couldn’t feel my left arm. I couldn’t see my right arm. I went to pick myself up—and my arms were gone.”

Since his parents were in Bismarck, 90 miles away, John knew no one would hear if he screamed. “I thought I was going to die,” he says, “and I didn’t want to die.” A cool head was his only hope for survival. He rushed 400 feet to the sliding glass door in the back of the house, tried in vain to use the bone dangling from his left shoulder to nudge it open and then, blood oozing from the slumps of both arms, ran to the front door, kicked it open and made his way to the push-button phone. Using a pen clenched in his teeth, he pecked out his uncle’s number and asked his cousin to send for help. Finally, concerned about getting blood on his mother’s carpet, he walked to the bathroom, kicked aside the shower curtain, and sank, crying, into the bathtub, where he waited, alone but for the company of Tinker, until help arrived.

By 6:30 A.M., an air ambulance had delivered Thompson to North Memorial Medical Center near Minneapolis, where a microsurgery team led by Dr. Van Beek reattached the limbs that John, despite the loss of half his body’s blood, had thought to remind the local ambulance crew to retrieve.

Then, as now, John dismisses any notion of heroism. “You do what you have to do,” he said at the time, propped in a hospital bed with no idea what the future might offer. “I’m Irving to figure out how I’ll finish high school, if I can drive again.”

Today, less than three months after John returned from the hospital to his family’s 1,600-acre farm on the outskirts of Hurdsfield, N.Dak. (pop. 100), the 18-year-old high school senior has already found answers to many of his questions. With the help of a specially equipped 1992 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme, sold to him at cost by a local dealer, John can in fact drive again, with his left hand secured in a customized steering device. Speeding along a road to school in the shiny black Cutlass, John marvels at the attention he’s received—and the money. Admirers have sent some $600,000 in donations for his future (his medical bills are covered by the family’s insurance). “My life is so much better than it’s ever been,” he says, still reveling in his newfound fame. “It’s hard to explain, but there are more possibilities, the world seems more open to me.” Best of all, on May 17, he graduated with his nine classmates from Bowdon High School.

It is 8:30 A.M., a week before graduation, and John, still half asleep, swings his long legs out of bed. On his arms are the supportive splints he wears even when he sleeps. “I toss and turn a lot,” he explains. “I feel better with my arms protected.” Preparing breakfast in the kitchen, his mother, Karen, hears John moving and is already halfway down the hall when he calls out. It’s a reality John prefers not to dwell on, but he is absolutely dependent on his mother’s tender care.

Using the strength in his shoulders, John can lift both arms over his head. He has no useful elbow movement, however, and no hand or wrist control. Dr. Van Beek is hopeful that John will regain feeling in his hands within two years. But it may well take five years—and several more operations, as well as intensive therapy—before anyone can know the extent to which John will be able to move and control his hands. One of Van Beek’s main goals now is to increase John’s elbow movement, but that too will require surgery and long hours of therapy.

In the bathroom next to John’s room, Karen attaches a strap just above the wrist of his left splint. Then she slides in a hook that John uses to pull his boxer shorts up and down. A few minutes later, John calls “Mom!” again, and within seconds Karen is undoing the hook and replacing it with a second contraption that holds John’s toothbrush. She squeezes on a dab of toothpaste and closes the door behind her. “He doesn’t like people to watch,” says Karen. “Guess I don’t blame him.”

Privacy, these days, is a rarity for John. He has become something of a public figure. At a welcome-home potluck dinner held in early March, days after he returned from the hospital, the tired, weak teenager took time to chat with nearly each of the 300 friends and neighbors who packed the Hurdsfield community center. “I’m doing great,” he patiently repealed between mouthfuls of baked beans and Jell-O. He has met scores of celebrities, including Emilio Estevez, who visited him in the hospital in Minneapolis, received a signed photograph from Barbara Bush and had offers to audition as a singer—his lifelong dream—from two recording studios. Says John: “I’ve never been treated better.” And yet at times he tires of the spotlight. “I just want to live my life,” he says.

For the third time this morning, John is calling for his mother. In his bedroom, she dresses him. “I just don’t think John realizes what he’s facing,” she says after he has left for school. “He doesn’t stop to think that he’s totally dependent.”

As John is first to admit, he has yet to fully absorb the impact of his disability. “I kind of just ignore the psychological stuff,” he says with a laugh. “I just keep busy, don’t think about it.” Instead he concentrates on what is most important to him: friends, graduation, his new car. Speeding down a gravel road, he changes the subject with a mischievous grin. “I had sort of a bad reputation before the accident,” he says. “I wasn’t that great a student, and people thought I drove too fast. The little old ladies in town would shake their fingers at me when I drove by. Now,” he adds, “they pat me on the head. It’s annoying. I’m trying to get my old reputation back.”

It is a plan his school pals are, for the most part, happy to aid and abet. He walks among his friends with an air of boyish bravado, laughing, talking, playing pranks like pushing the girls into a cluster of shrubs, or nudging his new girlfriend, Shaila Kost, 17, to the edge of her chair. As best they can, his friends try to make him comfortable with his disability. Darnell Buchmiller, 18, a popular senior who became close to John after the accident, is careful not to push too hard. “I don’t want to get in John’s way,” he says. “But I want to help if he needs it. A lot of guys would be embarrassed to be seen feeding another guy at Hardees,” he adds. “But it doesn’t bother me, and it doesn’t bother John.” Not a word is spoken about the splints discreetly tucked beneath John’s favorite sweatshirts. “We figure John doesn’t want to talk about his problems,” says Kim Fike, 17, a junior. “I’m sure it must be worrying him, what his future holds, but he never lets on.”

Not in public, at least. There are moments, though, when the facade falls away. During rehearsal for the school talent show last month, two of John’s friends were singing “Meet Me in Montana,” a duet about failed dreams, when suddenly, he recalls, he was overcome by sadness. “I don’t even like the song,” he says, “but I almost started crying. I went down to the locker room under the gym and just sat there. I thought, ‘What am I doing? What am I trying to prove?’ ”

In the mint-green therapy room at St. Aloisius hospital in Harvey, 20 miles away, John sits patiently as his physical therapist, Kelly Christenson, removes his sweatshirt and chats with John’s father, Larry, about farm conditions. Making the biweekly sessions is not easy for John’s parents. Their married daughter, Kim Blotter, 24, lives away from home in Fargo, and their older son, Mick, 22, is a truck-driver who can pitch in on the farm only once or twice a week. With John out of commission, Larry and Karen—who also drive the local school bus route every day—are doing double duty just to get by. Still, they want to be by John’s side when they can. Larry was upset that old equipment, without modern safety devices, hurt his son so terribly, but, he says, “guilt and going over the past doesn’t get you anything. John knows it was an accident.”

Pulling John’s fingers, Christenson says, “They’re feeling good, John.” “Ya, I know,” John responds, “Van Beek’s almost sure I’ll get feeling back in them.” Though there is some discomfort as Kelly rotates John’s arms, for now John feels no pain. “We’re keeping things stretched out as much as possible,” Kelly explains, “so you’ll have muscles to work with when the nerves come back.”

Though John’s nerves are healing well, the bones are not mending satisfactorily, and bone grafting must be performed. To accommodate John’s senior-year festivities, Van Beek agreed to schedule the operation for late May. But when, early in May, a nurse from Van Beek’s office leaves a message saying John is scheduled for surgery May 23, John gets testy. “I’m not going,” he snaps. “I want to be here with my friends for a while.” Softly Karen says, “John, you have to go.” But John is adamant. “Oh, no, I don’t,” he said. “This is my body.”

Van Beek is not a man John crosses lightly—and by the following day, he has mellowed. “I’m so scared about the surgery,” he confesses quietly. “I’m terrified of the pain.” At times like these, his absolute trust in Dr. Van Beek is a source of great comfort. A former North Dakota farm boy who himself was injured in a tractor accident, the Minneapolis microsurgeon, 49, shares a special bond with his patient. “Everyone says I’m the hero,” John likes to say, “but Van Beek’s the one who put me back together.”

On his first return visit to Minneapolis in late March, John brought the surgeon a gift: a handmade wooden calendar. “There’s something on the back. Read it,” he said eagerly. Van Beek saw the neatly penned words, written by Karen at John’s direction, and said, “I think somebody else better read this. I’ll probably cry.” Karen took the calendar. “To my hero,” she read, “from your favorite and most famous patient. John Thompson.”

Touched by the courage and devotion of John and his family, Van Beek has become more than just a medical adviser. Responding to John’s worries about what to do with his $600,000 donation money, Van Beek referred the family to a highly respected money manager. And gently but firmly he pushes John to enroll in college in the fall. “Fame is fleeting, John,” he tells the teenager. “One day the cameras will be gone, and you’ll be alone.”

As fond as he is of his “most famous” patient, Van Beek is concerned about John’s flirtation with stardom. “Right now,” Van Beek says, “John is in denial. With all the attention and excitement, he hasn’t come to terms with the fact that he’s lost something very important.” Years from now, John may regain some use of his hands, but until then he has to learn to function more fully on his own—using a feeding device, for example, instead of being fed. “Your mother is doing superhuman duty,” Van Beek tells him. “That can’t go on forever.” This summer, when John will spend six weeks doing rehabilitation therapy at Courage Center near Minneapolis, reality will hit, Van Beek predicts. “He’ll have some difficult times,” says the surgeon. “But when’s he’s gone through it, he’ll be able to do most things for himself. This has to happen. His self-esteem, his future depends on it.”

Back at home, John and his parents are sitting down to lunch at the tiny Hurdsfield Cafe. Already at the table, John’s grandmother, Vera Thompson, 70, breaks into a warm smile when she sees her grandson. “Always such a sweet boy,” she says. If all goes well, come fall, John hopes to enroll at the University of Mary, a private Catholic college in Bismarck, and room with his friend Darnell. As the family talks about his plans, Vera picks up John’s hand and begins gently massaging his fingers. “Aw, Grandma,” John complains, “not here.” Grinning, she continues. “He’s not sure he wants that from his grandmother,” she says with a laugh. “I’m waiting for the day when he can squeeze me back.”