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Mark Lindquist is a hero. The social worker nearly gave his life trying to save three developmentally disabled adults from the Joplin tornado. Both houses of the Missouri legislature honored him, the Senate calling him “a true hero and inspiration to others.”
The tornado’s 200 mph winds tossed Mr. Lindquist a block, broke every rib, obliterated his shoulder, knocked out most of his teeth, and put him in a coma for two months.
But heroism doesn’t pay the bills. Mr. Lindquist, 51, ran up medical expenses that exceed $2.5 million. He requires eleven daily prescriptions and will need more surgery.
Mr. Lindquist has no medical insurance. He couldn’t afford it on a job paying barely above minimum wage. He assumed workers’ compensation would cover his bills, but his claim was denied “based on the fact that there was no greater risk than the general public at the time you were involved in the Joplin tornado,” according to a letter from Accident Fund Insurance Company of America, his company’s workers’ comp provider.
That reasoning has angered Lindquist’s family, employer, and lawmakers. “I think they need to take another look at the circumstances and revisit the claim,” state Rep. Bill Lant (R-Joplin) said. “What he did went beyond heroics.”
Mr. Lindquist watched the skies darken on May 22 while on his way to the group home occupied by three men with Down syndrome. After he arrived, a tornado siren blared.
Mr. Lindquist’s employer had put workers through a tornado drill, so he and co-worker Ryan Tackett knew what to do. There was no basement or shelter, and the residents could not be relocated quickly, so Mr. Lindquist and Mr. Tackett placed mattresses over the men for protection, then climbed atop the mattresses for added weight.
The EF-5 tornado was among the nation’s worst ever. It destroyed more than 7,000 homes, including the group home, and killed 162 people. Among the dead were the three men Mr. Lindquist and Mr. Tackett tried to save.
“I loved them almost as much as I love my own kid,” he said.
After the storm, rescuers found Lindquist buried in rubble, impaled by a piece of metal. Bones from his shoulder crumbled as they placed him on a door used as a makeshift stretcher. He was later delivered to Freeman Hospital.
Mr. Lindquist’s sister, twelve-year-old son, and other relatives contacted every hospital within 100 miles searching for him. None of the unidentified matched his description.
His injuries were so severe that his slender, athletic body was unrecognizable. After three days, he was identified by tiny brown flecks in his hazel eyes.
Doctors told Mr. Lindquist’s sister that if he survived, it likely would be in a vegetative state. Even in a best-case scenario, he likely would be blind in one eye, never regain use of his right arm, and never speak or think normally.
Things got worse. Debris that got into the open sores caused a fungal infection. Mr. Lindquist overcame the fungus and was flown to a hospital in Columbia for a little over a month before being sent to a rehab center in Mount Vernon where he awakened.
Mr. Lindquist’s recovery amazed doctors. His right arm remains in a sling, but he has use of the hand. The eye that was temporarily blinded has full sight. He moves slowly and has short-term memory loss, but speaks well.
Mr. Lindquist’s sister said the insurance company’s decision is unfathomable because if her brother hadn’t been at work, he wouldn’t have been hurt. He also could have jumped in his van and driven away from the group home as the tornado approached.
Mr. Lindquist said that thought never crossed his mind. “I could have abandoned them to save myself, but I would never do that,” he said.
Mr. Lindquist’s boss said the agency has asked Accident Fund Insurance to reconsider Mr. Lindquist’s case.
After the tornado, 132 people filed workers’ compensation claims. Insurance companies denied only eight of the claims.
Since word of Lindquist’s plight spread, people around Joplin have pitched in, donating a few hundred dollars. Mr. Lindquist is touched by the kindness, even if it barely pays for the prescriptions, much less the medical costs.
Despite lingering pain, financial strain and uncertainty about whether he’ll work again, Mr. Lindquist sees good things happening in his life.
Earlier this year, Carolyn Stephenson Mckinlay contacted Mr. Lindquist. They met thirty years ago in Montana, where he was helping to build a water tower. After a brief courtship, they parted ways. Both married others, then divorced. Ms. Mckinlay found Mr. Lindquist on Facebook earlier this year, and the two decided to meet in Joplin. The tornado hit first, but she still came. He proposed in August, and they plan to wed.
All things considered, Mr. Lindquist says he’s a lucky man. “I’m a walking miracle,” he said.