MINOT, N.D. — It’s pretty clear John Thompson is a guy who doesn’t get rattled by much. But today his cat, Toby, is getting on his last nerve.
The 10-year-old rescue cat keeps hitting the phone where Thompson is trying to have a Zoom call with Forum News Service.
“I have my phone sitting on his cat tree, so he’s trying to play,” said the exasperated Thompson while trying to reposition the phone Toby knocked over.
But Toby’s interruptions are small potatoes for this 47-year-old survivor — a man who, 29 years ago Jan. 11, had both his arms ripped off in a farm accident. The subsequent surgery to reattach his arms garnered international media attention — all a little daunting for the then 18-year-old farm kid from Hurdsfield, N.D.
The media attention has long since quieted down. So what is Thompson up to now? Have the years been good to him? Can he still use his arms? Were there drawbacks to his instant fame? And what brings him joy today?
'I didn’t know what was going on'
On Saturday morning, Jan. 11, 1992, Thompson was unloading pig feed with a grain auger and playing with the dog when he somehow got too close to the power takeoff shaft (PTO), which didn’t have a safety shield on it.
“My shirt wasn't tucked in, and they figure my shirt got wrapped up in the PTO shaft. And yeah, I still remember spinning on the shaft,” he said.
Thompson blacked out and awoke to his dog licking his face and the realization that his arms were gone.
“I didn't know what was going on,” he recalled. “I'm sitting there trying to figure out how to get up. Then I just put my back against the tractor tire and pushed myself up.”
Thompson says at that point he just kind of “shut down." No one else was home, so he walked 100 yards to the house to call for help — turning the doorknob with his mouth to get inside and using a pencil to dial the phone. Then he sat in the bathtub to prevent blood from getting on his mom’s new carpet.
He says the only pain he really felt was when the exposed nerve hanging down his right side knocked against something. But he was starting to get dizzy.
“I was bleeding out,” he said. “By the time I got to the hospital, they said ‘You shouldn't be alive because there's no blood in you.’”
Despite the dire situation that day in the emergency room, Thompson remembers carrying on normal conversations with people, worrying that he left the tractor running, and even getting angry when the medical staff wanted to cut off off his brand new cowboy boots.
After convincing the staff to just pull off the boots, he noticed the staff carrying a trash bag.
“They laid it beside me on a table, and they pulled my arms out of it. As I'm laying on my bed in the emergency room, my arms are laying a couple of feet from my head,” he said.
Thompson and his arms were eventually loaded onto a plane for Minneapolis where the arms would be reattached. He remembers the trip well. It was his first time on a real plane, and he argued with the crew to let him sit up so he could look out the window. But then he remembers telling the crew how cold his arms were.
“The crew member was like, ‘John, you don’t have your arms anymore.’ I said, ‘I know, but they’re freezing,’ and he said, ‘Well they’re on ice in the front of the plane,’” Thompson said with a chuckle.
He can look back and laugh now at some of it, but it was a harrowing ordeal. After getting his arms reattached by surgeon Dr. Allen Van Beek (a 1966 University of North Dakota graduate) at North Memorial Hospital in Robbinsdale, Minn., he was put into a coma for four weeks so he could heal. Thompson nearly died of a blood infection and endured more surgery and intensive rehabilitation.
And then there was the media attention — so much media attention from local, to national and international talk shows and news teams. He was invited to the White House, featured in People magazine and was even invited to sing the national anthem at a Minnesota Twins game, where he got to meet Kirby Puckett.
At his high school graduation in May of 1992, just five months after the accident, it was easy to see that the soft-spoken Thompson was pretty uncomfortable with the dozens of news crews that showed up for the ceremony.
Unfortunately, he can’t remember everything about his 15 minutes of fame because doctors believe his massive blood loss affected his memory.
“I've been to Washington three times. I met the Clintons, and I have no memory of it at all. I've done some really cool things. And I don't remember any of that. I just had no memory,” Thompson said.
Telling the whole story
Following his high school graduation, Thompson attended the University of Mary, in Bismarck for a while, but he says it was “not a good experience.” He started getting busier with speaking engagements around the country and donated proceeds to United Blood Services because blood donations saved his life. In 2002, on the 10th anniversary of his accident, he wrote a book entitled, “Home in One Piece."
The book sold well and, for a while, he was in discussions with actor Victoria Principal about turning it into a screenplay and film. As he approaches the 30th anniversary of the accident next year, he’s hoping to revisit the idea of the screenplay and add more detail to the book’s story.
“When I first wrote it, times were much different. They’d say ‘You can't say this, you can't say that. This is gonna make you look bad.’ So we left a lot of stuff out of it. I’d like to write a more open book.”
Thompson could write at length about the tough times. He says while he’ll get the occasional hug from someone who recognizes him and remembers his story, he’s also been taken advantage of and harassed by people.
“One thing that people don't realize is how much me being disabled, people are like ‘You know, whatever, you can’t do anything about it anyway,'" he said.
Thompson says he had to take people to small claims court and was even threatened by someone who was offended that Thompson wouldn’t shake his hand. His reattached hands are unable to fully open.
“They want to literally fight me because they think ‘You're too good to shake my hand?' I'm like, dude, I can't.”
Thompson says he’s experienced depression for years and is very open about it.
“I want everybody to know about it. And it's something everybody goes through, not to be ashamed of it,” he said.
Thompson currently splits his time between his home in Minot and an apartment in Minneapolis. He worked for a time as a real estate agent, but is not currently able to receive a regular paycheck because of the disability insurance he gets.
“It’s frustrating. It’s one thing I hate the most. The government won’t let me do anything,” he said.
But Thompson still stays busy, including a recent remodel of the home he initially bought to flip, but ended up keeping for himself.
“There’s not a whole lot I don’t do from shingling, raking, mowing, painting,” Thompson said. “Holding a nail is a pain because I don’t have the fine motor skills.”
In addition to working on his house and on the book, Thompson lifts weights, trying to rehab after recent knee surgery. He’s also working with a friend to patent a new prescription bottle design that makes it easier to get just one pill out of the bottle.
“Being as stable as I am, when I try to get one pill out of a bottle, I usually end up with 50 of them or drop the whole bottle,” he said. “This is a whole, new design which only allows one pill at a time.”
But Thompson’s real passion remains singing — something he started doing as a kid.
"It's just something that always brought me joy. I mean, even growing up on the farm, I always looked forward to when the grain bins were empty and go inside the grain bin and sing because the acoustics were just unbelievable.”
He got to use his voice shortly after the accident, including that national anthem at the Twins game and singing at high school graduation, but these days, he mostly sings at weddings, funerals and karaoke. He also recorded a Christmas album for his parents and has a YouTube Channel with some of his music.
No ‘what ifs’
As Thompson, the reluctant teenage hero, looks back on the three decades since that awful day in January 1992, he refuses to think about what his life could have been like if the accident never happened.
“I try not to think about it. It's not going to help me to think about the 'what ifs?'" he said.
Instead, he’s trying to focus on any of the good things that have come from living the life he’s led, one of which includes a story about a boy in Arkansas.
“He was 11 or 12, and he was in a chicken coop grinding up chicken feed, when he got both hands stuck in the grinder and lost both of them," said Thompson. "And he couldn’t get out of the chicken coop, and he just sat down because he had no way to get out of it. He was just sitting there dying when he remembered my story of biting the doorknob, so he went to bite the doorknob and got out. Yeah, you can’t help but feel good about something like that.”
HIs book, "Home in One Piece" is available for free download at Amazon.