A year ago, Thurston County Sheriff John Snaza was on life support after a horrific motorcycle crash while he was on vacation in Montana.
Family members knew he had been flown to a hospital, but they didn’t know which one. It didn’t help that he was admitted as “John Doe.”
Tom Snaza, 45, of Spokane, said they called every hospital in northern Idaho, northern Montana and even ones in Washington, to locate his older brother. After nearly four hours, they were pretty sure they had found him.
But when they walked into the critical care unit at Kootenai Health in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, Tom Snaza said he didn’t see the brother he knew: He saw a man in bandages, hooked to machines, with a face swollen beyond recognition.
He was able to give hospital workers a positive identification another way.
“I knew his tattoos and his scars,” Tom Snaza said. “I was able to recognize him by that … He was in really bad shape.”
Snaza was in a coma for nearly two weeks. He underwent multiple surgeries, endured months of physical therapy, and fought to keep his severely broken left arm.
At first, doctors wanted to amputate it. In February, he developed an infection in his arm, and nearly lost it again.
“Yeah, it hurts, but it’s kind of relative,” Snaza, now 52, said during an interview with The Olympian on Aug. 23, the one-year anniversary of his crash. “It can be distracting at times, but I’m good. .They were going to cut if off, my arm, so I’m pretty lucky to keep it.”
Snaza’s other injuries included a punctured lung, a lacerated kidney, broken ribs, and damaged right hand. He also underwent surgery to fuse a bone in his neck.
“I’m doing awesome,” he said. “I’ve got one more surgery to go.”
That procedure, in which doctors planned to reattach his wrist and reconnect some nerves and tendons on his arm, was set for Friday.
“I was supposed to have it in July, but they had to do some other medical stuff,” Snaza said.
He’ll soon start back with physical therapy too, something he had to coordinate with his surgery since insurance only covers a certain number of visits each year.
“I look forward to therapy because it really, really does help out my hand movement,” Snaza said.
The sheriff, who was elected in 2010 and again in 2014, said he continues to get stronger, and has emerged from the ordeal with a new mission.
“I would say I’m more wanting to fight for people being safe,” Snaza said. “More than ever, I see my opportunity of being able to make a difference can change at any moment, and I want to use all of those moments to make a difference.”
Helmets and good Samaritans
During the Legislative session, Snaza testified about the importance of keeping the state’s helmet law. Snaza was riding a 2009 Harley Davidson without a helmet when he crashed. In Montana, helmets aren’t required for motorcyclists 18 and older.
Snaza said he doesn’t know why he wasn’t wearing his helmet; he’d worn it earlier the day of the crash, and had it with him. But it was a choice that he accepts responsibility for; he says he’s sorry for embarrassing his community and putting his loved ones through so much stress.
“When you crash a bike, you don’t realize the impacts that you make on your community, your friends and your family,” he said. “My family was told that I would never be able to speak again. That I would never know who they were. … That I may not be able to eat.”
Snaza said kids ask him about his scars, and he takes the opportunity to give them a lesson in the importance of wearing helmets.
Snaza has ridden motorcycles for about 40 years. He and his friends were on Montana Highway 200 near milepost 23 in western Montana when he lost control of his bike while driving around a curve.
Montana trooper Steve Gaston said neither speed nor weather were factors. Snaza said the cause was classified as a “high-speed wobble,” which means the air flow didn’t match the flow of the spokes in the wheels, throwing the bike out of balance.
“The guys behind me said that all they could see was my back tire start to wobble,” he said.
The bike was too damaged to indicate if a mechanical issue was a contributing factor, he added.
Snaza said the stars were aligned in a way that brought him luck: The first people to arrive on the scene were an emergency room nurse and her father, who was a volunteer firefighter.
“And because there’s no cell service where I wrecked my bike, he knew which house to go to that had a phone and she ran down and took care of me, and told him to call an air flight,” he said.
Snaza was supposed to go to a Spokane hospital, but emergency workers didn’t think they could make it there in time.
“They had to do three blood transfusions before I even made it to Kootenai,” Snaza said.
A community rocked
News of the wreck hit the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office and Thurston County staff members especially hard.
Thurston County Commissioner Bud Blake and retired Commissioner Cathy Wolfe were in the same room when they were told about the crash.
Blake described that moment as “devastating.”
“We just hugged each other and cried,” Blake said. “We were in so much pain at that moment when we found out. We just thought: ‘Oh my God, not now. Don’t do it now because we need him.’”
Snaza said he doesn’t remember much about his time at Kootenai Health.
Secretary of State Kim Wyman visited him in September after he was out of his coma. She described his condition as “frail.”
“It was so touch-and-go at the beginning,” she said.
Snaza asked the nurse if he knew who Wyman was. Wyman said she thought the sheriff had forgotten her, but then realized he was playing a little bit of a joke on the nurse.
“I thought, ‘He’s gonna be fine – he’s good,’” Wyman said. “That moment gave me a lot of hope. I could tell he had a really long road ahead, but I thought, ‘He hasn’t lost that sense of humor.’”
Snaza said his first memory after the crash was the ambulance ride to Harborview Medical Center’s rehabilitation facility in Seattle. Lacey Fire District 3 and Thurston County Medic 1 teamed up to bring him back to Washington state with a donation-funded program that helps injured public safety workers.
“It wasn’t for a long time later that I heard they all had to volunteer to go over there, and how the gas was paid for,” Snaza said.
Thurston County Prosecutor Jon Tunheim visited him at Harborview. He said the sheriff was eager to talk shop.
“I walked in and he was immediately up and talking and he was asking what those commissioners were up to,” Tunheim said.
“I actually kind of had to say, ‘OK, don’t worry about that right now.’”
Snaza said he’s grateful for the community’s support. The Navy veteran and former SWAT team member credits everybody’s prayers for helping him pull through.
“It was humbling, however you say it, but I don’t know if that’s a good enough word,” he said. “Being a regular person, I don’t think of myself, if you will, of being that special. I just think of myself as a regular guy.”
Snaza said he was inundated with visitors at both hospitals.
“I feel bad that not everybody could get in, but I’m sure I wasn’t very impressive to see anyway, cause I probably didn’t look very pretty,” he said with a chuckle.
He doesn’t remember most of the visits while he was in either hospital anyway. He suffered memory loss, and had to relearn some skills, such as how to count money.
“I had to go through a really strict test process at Harborview before I could get released” in early October, he said. “…The good part is that my sight has come back.”
Moving on with his life
On Jan. 9, Snaza got married to his girlfriend, Amber, in Las Vegas. He said he never thought he’d get married a second time.
“When I was in the hospital, she stayed by my side every day and every night,” he said. “She was the person that told me to quit when you start feeling sorry for yourself. And she was the person that said you’re going to be fine – that encouraging piece.”
After he was home from the hospital in November, the couple took a trip to Mount Rainier.
“We just pulled over and I said, ‘You know what? I want you to be my wife,’” he said.
But he has promised her he will never to ride a big motorcycle again. He has a smaller motorcycle that he can ride on trails, but he says he always wears a helmet.
Tom Snaza said the biggest change he’s seen in his brother is his outlook on life.
“It’s like, ‘Live life. Don’t stall,’” Tom Snaza said. “He’s so much happier.”
Returning to work
Snaza eased back to work on a half-time basis in January. He said his staff did an incredible job while he was gone.
“It’s hard to sometimes chew on them now because of how hard they worked for me,” Snaza said.
But returning to the helm hasn’t been easy. He developed an infection in his left arm in February, and that required a daily regiment of shots and monitoring for several weeks.
“A lot of times I was going home at noon or whatever,” Snaza said. “Then the doubt in me is, ‘Am I good enough to be the sheriff?’”
He said people have continued to reach out and ask how he’s doing. During a recent trip to the Scatter Creek Fire near Rochester, Snaza said several of the fire victims told him that he’d been in their thoughts.
“How crazy is that?” he said. “Ask me about how I’m doing? I’m worried about how they’re doing.”
Snaza said he plans to run for his office again next year.
“I can probably say as hard as I fought to be the sheriff before, I really want to be the sheriff because I really do believe I can make a difference,” he said.
“I’ve always loved my job.”
Blake said he wasn’t surprised about the outpouring of support for Snaza. There were fundraisers, prayer vigils and flowers and notes sent to the Sheriff’s Office. People wore “Team Snaza” bracelets in support.
“He was born and raised here,” Blake said. “He represents the county more than any other elected official. He really touches the heart and soul of people.”
Tunheim said Snaza timed his transition back to work perfectly, and that he came back fully engaged.
And he agrees that Snaza seems happier and more “aware of life.”
“I just think that John’s got a guardian angel looking out for him,” Tunheim said. “I just feel so glad that he does because it would have been a huge loss for this community had he not survived that crash.”
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