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Joplin man still pulling debris from his body, 10 years after tornado

Matthew Stephens
Posted at 4:00 PM, May 21, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-21 20:10:56-04

JOPLIN, Mo. — In addition to the more than 160 people killed in the Joplin tornado, hundreds of others were hurt, some of them severely.

Matthew Stephens is in that group. He was thrown through the air when the storm destroyed his house, and spent the next four days in a coma, so his memories of that day are still scattered.

His body was riddled with massive injuries when he was thrown from his home.

"(I suffered a) Broken radial and ulna bone in my left arm, I have titanium plates in there still,” Stephens said. “(The tornado caused a) Compound fracture of my tibia, femur and (the tornado) sent my kneecap flying and led to the eventual amputation of my left leg. I also endured two spinal fractures, a skull fracture, severe whiplash that's caused a bulging disc in my neck and a broken pinkie.”

A decade later, Stephens’ body still gives him other tiny reminders of that awful day.

"About two months ago, I pulled a piece of wood out of my head again,” Stephens said. He’s describing an at-home operation he’s performed many times.

"X-acto blades and disinfectant, all of that,” Stephens said. “Pulling inch-long pieces of wood out of myself, or glass, gravel and it still happens to this day."

41 Action News interviewed Stephens in the hospital in 2011, just two days after his leg was amputated.

"I wouldn't really mind waking up with no legs and no arms,” Stephens said in 2011. “I would still live my life, try to live it happily."

Stephens’ goal is still the same. But ten years in, it's not much easier.

"This has made me slow down my life tenfold, both physically and mentally,” Stephens said. "The surgeons that operated on me said that I will be experiencing pain for the rest of my life, due to the injuries, and they were not wrong."

In the last few years, Stephens has struggled to get consistent access to pain medication. He says some days, his injuries hurt so badly that he's unable to get out of bed.

And sadly, his mind is in just as much pain.

"A storm rolls through, and I shut down. All I can do is shake and cry," Stephens said. “I will always mourn the people that lost their lives, I will always celebrate the people that saved others' lives. But it is a day that I'm not keen on recalling."

Stephens also told 41 Action News that while he’s very thankful for the different prosthetic legs he’s had in the 10 years since the tornado, the changes they’ve made to his gait have also been problematic. His hips and back move in a very different way now, and can often be quite painful.