Surgeon Still Tight With Patient He Put Back Together 16 Years Ago

When Dr. Allen Van Beek and John Thompson caught sight of each other, there was no manly hesitation over whether to shake hands or hug — the hug came naturally for the reconstructive surgeon and his former patient.

"We've spent a lot of time together," Van Beek said.

"It kind of creates a bond," Thompson said.

"Adversity creates a bond when you win the adversity," the doctor surmised.

The two men met in 1992, on the day when Thompson's arms caught in a tractor's power takeoff unit. The accident severed his right arm at the shoulder and his left arm near the elbow.

"John came as really three patients: his left arm was one patient, his right arm was the other patient, and his body was the third patient," Van Beek said.

Click here for a photo of Van Beek and Thompson.

At North Memorial Hospital in Robbinsdale, Minn., Van Beek and a medical team reattached Thompson's arms, to the point where today the Hurdsfield native can do everything except play darts.

For that internationally-renowned surgery and other achievements, the University of North Dakota Alumni Association recognized Van Beek with the Sioux Award on Thursday night. The 1966 graduate was one of five honored at a reception at the Alerus Center.

Thompson, 35, made the trip from Minot, where he works these days as a Realtor. He said he made a concession for "Beek" on his special night.

"He got me to wear a suit. I hate wearing suits," Thompson said.

When Thompson's arms were cut off, he was knocked unconscious. He woke up to his dog, Tuffy, persistently licking his face.

"He was my first miracle," he said. "Beek was the second."

Thompson, then 18, walked about 400 yards to his house, opening the door with his mouth. He dialed for help using a pencil held in his teeth and waited in the bathroom, so he wouldn't bleed on his mother's new carpet.

"When the ambulance crew came, they thought I just had a broken arm," he said. "All three of them walked in the bathroom and turned around and left. And I'm like, 'Where are you guys going?' But they were just caught so off guard."

In contrast, he said, Van Beek knew what to expect.

"I get to Beek, and he knew what was happening, and he had everything ready to go for me you know, just like clockwork," he said.

Van Beek said he was making plans with other doctors as Thompson was being brought to North Memorial. "We were on the phone talking about how to manage John before John ever came to the Twin Cities," he said.

Van Beek estimated that fewer than 10 people have had successful double-arm reattachments. Thompson was one.

"In my lifetime, we've gone from non-reattaching, to reattaching to now transplanting," he said, adding some perspective: "It's like going from people dying of kidney disease to having kidney transplants."

Van Beek, a native of the North Dakota town of Westfield, had his own traumatic episode at age 13, when he was run over by a tractor. He recalls riding to the hospital in the back of a hearse and getting a body cast from his chest to his ankles. That experience sparked his interest in medicine, according to the UND Web site.

Van Beek, 64, now has his own practice and focuses on reconstructive and cosmetic surgery. He's also a clinical adjunct professor at the University of Minnesota.

Thompson said he makes a point to visit Van Beek whenever he's in the Minneapolis area. He said the relationship now goes beyond doctor-patient.

"I see it as a friend helping a friend," Thompson said.