John Thompson doesn't remember a lot about the North Dakota farm kid whose arms were ripped off by an auger 30 years ago and then reattached during six hours of painstaking surgery in Robbinsdale.
Much of his memory loss is due to a traumatic brain injury that was caused, he figures, by the staggering amount of blood he lost on that frigid morning in January 1992, along with all the pills he's taken to deal with anxiety in the years since.
But the 48-year-old man in the leather jacket and neatly trimmed beard says he can no longer relate to the 18-year-old high school senior who slipped and fell into a power takeoff shaft while moving barley into a grinder — making him, in a "ghastly way" as the Los Angeles Times put it, "an American hero."
"I always refer to him before the accident as somebody else, because we're not at all alike," said Thompson in a recent interview in Minneapolis.
Nevertheless, after running through a series of jobs, struggling with relationships and enduring years of therapy, what happened to Thompson that January day still largely defines who he is and what he does. He survived the accident. Surviving his celebrity has proven to be another matter entirely.
"I keep trying to get away from it, but I have nowhere else to go, so I just keep going back to it. I can't find nothing else," he said. "I try doing other things and they just haven't worked out. It always comes back to people knowing me and wanting to use me."
Thompson, who lives in Minot, N.D., rented an apartment this winter in Minneapolis. While in town he checked in with Dr. Allen Van Beek, the Edina plastic surgeon who with Dr. J. Bart Muldowney reattached his arms at North Memorial Hospital, and who has since become Thompson's friend as well as doctor.
Even three decades on, the story comes readily to mind: how Thompson, alone on the farm and without his arms, staggered 100 yards to the house, used his mouth to twist open the doorknob and clenched a pen in his teeth to dial his cousin for help.
Then the teenager went to the bathtub to await paramedics. He didn't want to bleed all over his mom's carpet.
"That's what made that story so vivid to everybody," said Van Beek, who still performs microsurgery. "In Singapore, I was introduced as the guy who put the arms back on that farm kid. Patients ask me about that story to this day."
Thompson's arms today work fairly well. At rest they bend slightly at the elbows; some movements aren't possible for him. But he can do things like side his garage, paint his house and plant his lawn — all jobs he's been doing in the last few weeks.
His hands, however, are fisted and must be manually opened, which sometimes rips the skin. He can't stuff them into his pockets or wear gloves, which means he must shovel snow barehanded until his hands "go dead" and he needs to warm them.
Van Beek wants him to consider prosthetic hands to improve his dexterity. But Thompson says he's adjusted to what he can do with his hands and doesn't want to lose his sense of touch.
"I could still improve his function if he wanted to," Van Beek said. "He doesn't cope with it as well as he should. He's got a big heart, but he's stubborn."
Just ask Oprah Winfrey about his stubbornness. Her producers once asked him to do the show, but Thompson had already committed to addressing 50 students at a rural North Dakota school. He refused to reschedule.
"They said, 'This is Oprah Winfrey,' " he said. "Good, this is John Thompson. I'm not canceling. I gave these people my word."
Jennifer Weigel, a Minot paralegal and Thompson pal, said he likes nothing better than working on his house, eating barbecue with her family and singing karaoke. He hates special treatment, like the time a friend offered to play him in pool with one hand behind his back.
"But he likes people to hear his story," Weigel said. "It's kind of therapeutic for him. His accident serves as proof that he can make it through things."
'I had nothing'
Until he lost his arms Thompson was just one of 13 seniors at tiny Bowdon High School, near his hometown of Hurdsfield, N.D. Painfully shy, more comfortable with his dogs and cats than his classmates, he was thinking about a career in music or maybe aviation.
"Then after the accident, everybody loved me, everybody wanted to be my friend, everybody wanted to date me," he said.
Before long, Thompson was getting requests from strangers to touch and heal them — and threats from others who were jealous of his sudden fame and fortune. He had to call police to keep stalkers at bay and hire bodyguards when he was speaking. He had never played sports because he didn't like attention, but now it seemed like the whole world was watching him. The adjustment was confusing and painful.
"I didn't have any managers, I didn't have a publicist, I had nothing," Thompson said. "And I knew absolutely nothing about anything."
He got thousands of cards and letters from well-wishers around the world, many addressed simply to "The Brave Teenager Whose Arms Were Rejoined" (Australia). An account set up for him at a local bank quickly collected hundreds of thousands of dollars. Bette Midler sent flowers, Vikings players and cheerleaders paid him a visit and Emilio Estevez stopped by to chat. Victoria Principal wanted to do a movie about him. Military veterans sent him their medals.
People magazine did a story on his senior prom, and the Twins invited him to sing the national anthem before a game at the Metrodome. Offered scholarships by several colleges, he chose the University of Mary in Bismarck, about 85 miles from his home. But he dropped out when university authorities barred him from public speaking because, he said, "if I said something wrong it would make the school look bad."
Thompson doubled down on a budding career as a motivational speaker. Before the accident, he had been terrified to talk in front of his classmates; now he found himself addressing thousands at a time. He toured the nation telling his story, urging farmers to adopt safe practices. He visited the White House and worked with First Lady Hillary Clinton to promote 911 and ambulance service in rural areas.
He also was open about his own struggles, and the value of counseling.
"Look at all the things that have been written about me — you know, 'Too tough to die.' I had to live up to that stuff, and nobody can," Thompson said. "It's OK to break. It's OK to ask for help. And that's why I pushed so hard and talked so much about mental stuff."
He sank into a deep depression after Christmas Eve 1994, when he accidentally ran over and killed his dog Tuffy, the blue heeler that had licked his face and awakened him after he was thrown by the takeoff shaft. Tuffy had stayed at his side as he made his way to the house and had shown the ambulance crew where one of his arms had landed.
"He saved my life and I took his," Thompson said. "I never recovered from it."
Weigel first met Thompson when he visited her following reconstructive surgery on her own severed arm. They found themselves singing at the same karaoke bars a few years later. They've talked many times when Thompson has gotten sad or depressed.
"We just kind of keep each other in check," she said.
Because he was busy speaking or working on his 2001 book, "Home in One Piece," Thompson passed on a number of opportunities. He turned down an offer to work as a Minot TV reporter and declined an invitation to testify before Congress. He worked three years as a real estate agent, but ran into problems there; once he was unable to write up a purchase offer because the house was unheated and his hands were too cold to hold a pen.
While health insurance covered many of the expenses following the accident, Thompson sued his father — it was their idea — in 1997 to collect on the family's property insurance against the manufacturer of the farm equipment that had battered him. They lost the case because Thompson was a family member, not a farm employee. Only later did he find out, he said, that his lawyer had turned down a settlement offer.
He no longer has most of the $750,000 in donations, investments and income he amassed, thanks to a money manager who he said squandered it in the market. He lives mainly on state and federal disability payments, which limit how much he can earn before he risks losing those benefits.
His parents, Larry and Karen Thompson, still live on the farm though they lease the land to others. A door in the house still has the hole that John punched with his knee to get to the phone, but the old carpet has been replaced. When they tore it up years ago, he said, the plywood floor beneath was stained black with dried blood.
Thompson wants to do a children's book, a story about a three-legged dog. He'd love to do more singing and cut a record. Before COVID-19, he had planned to sell his house in Minot and buy a condo in Minneapolis, where he said no one knows him. He'd still like to do that. If he meets someone new, he introduces himself as just JT.
And despite his setbacks, he remains defiantly proud of who he is and what he has endured over the last 30 years.
"I'd like to see what would happen to you if you're 18 and you get thrown into all this," Thompson said. "I'm damned impressed with what I've done."