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John Thompson still struggles with aftermath of 1992 accident

Sioux Award winner Dr. Allen Van Beek (left) and his former patient John Thompson. Van Beek reattached Thompson's arms after a 1992 farm accident. Herald photo by John Stennes.

FARGO -- On a January day in 1992, an accident on a central North Dakota farm forever changed John Thompson's life.

The then-high school senior's arms were severed by a tractor's power takeoff and successfully reattached in an eight-hour surgery.

Today, the 37-year-old works as a real estate agent in Minot, where he has lived for the past 11 years.

Thompson still struggles daily with the results of that accident -- both physically and emotionally, said his mom Karen Thompson, who still lives on the Hurdsfield, N.D., farm where the accident took place.

"The struggles have just changed him completely," she said.

Thompson became an instant hero and received international attention after the accident. The story of a small-town North Dakota kid who dialed for help with a pencil clenched in his teeth and waited in the bathtub so he wouldn't get blood on his mother's carpet was featured in national headlines.

Today, Thompson still gets recognized almost everywhere he goes, and it's those details people remember, he said.

"That's usually the first thing people say: 'You're the kid in the bathtub.' I get that all the time," Thompson said.

In 2002, Thompson published the book "Home in One Piece" about the accident. The book became a best-seller in the Midwest, and he hopes to republish it for the 20th anniversary of the accident, Thompson said.

Though he regained limited use of his arms, the physical limitations of Thompson's 19-year-old injuries have been more pronounced in recent months, he said.

Last year, Thompson began losing some strength in his hands, a problem made worse by North Dakota winters, he said.

"When it gets cold, my hands don't work at all," he said.

His mom said the emotional scars and depression that followed the accident have been the hardest part of John's struggle.

"I don't care how old your child is, if your child is in pain, whether it's physical or psychological, you feel it," she said.

His disability has made finding work difficult, Karen Thompson said.

"That's not easy to deal with as a young man and wanting to be independent," she said.

But the attention that has followed him for the past two decades has been harder to deal with than the actual disability, John Thompson said.

"The attention was way harder. There's no comparison. Everyone says, 'You've struggled so much with the accident.' That was no big deal at all," he said.

The attention left him feeling more like a side show than a person at times, he said.

"Coming from a town of 70 people and not knowing anything ... being thrown into the spotlight and being known around the world was just scary," he said.

But the publicity was positive in many ways, too, he said. His celebrity helped raise money for United Blood Services and other charities over the years.

"That's always been a great thing about it," he said.

The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead and the Herald are Forum Communications Co. newspapers.