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How Peachtree City cyclist John Snyder’s near-death experience changed his life

John Snyder. Photo by Michael Cuneo.

By Michael Cuneo – 

It’s a typical Saturday morning in July for John Snyder. The 35-year-old has just checked his tire pressure and slid into a reflective jacket before mounting his Giant Defy 3 road bike. The sun rises as he’s about to embark on a 50-mile practice run in preparation for an Ironman triathlon, just eight weeks away. Snyder didn’t get to compete in that Ironman event, and he may never get on a bike again.

A driver slowed down to allow deer to cross the street and noticed something strange in the road. Maybe debris? Possibly the result of a car accident from the night before? It turns out to be Snyder unconscious and unresponsive. Parts of his bike scattered across the road and reduced to brittle. The rear wheel of his bike was gone. His neck was broken. His skull had a jagged 10 cm long laceration. His life was draining away with each second that passed.

Snyder’s dismantled bike. Photo by PTCPD.

Snyder was the victim of a hit in run in Peachtree City, Georgia, on July 31, 2021. He was taken by helicopter to Grady Hospital in Atlanta, where he underwent surgery to repair his neck and skull. What ensued were weeks of recovery that included pneumonia, fevers, vertigo, and sleepless nights. Snyder was no longer the endurance athlete that had once tackled triathlons with impressive results. Instead, he was reduced to life managed by machinery that breathed for him and fed him through a tube.

Snyder’s impressive athletic abilities encompassed more than competing in triathlons. As a competitive swimmer in high school, he knew where his strength was. While attending Auburn University, he was a walk-on member of the swim team, something he says was both challenging and exhilarating.

“I was the work hard make good grades slow guy at the back of the bench. I knew my role, and I was ok with that. It’s just a part of being a walk-on,” he said.

After college Snyder started running, working from 5 K’s up to marathons. In 2018 he got the idea of competing in an Ironman triathlon. He spent hours of training in preparation for the event, mounting his bike and pedaling for hours on a multitude of occasions.

No matter what precautions Snyder took while training, nothing could have prepared him for the incident that took place just a few years later on the route he had traversed countless times.

“All I really remember from that morning is leaving. I don’t remember the accident. I don’t remember what happened. I don’t remember a thing after that,” Snyder said when describing that fateful morning.

The person who hit Snyder didn’t stop. They didn’t call 911 or turn themselves in. Police eventually found and arrested Kenneth Vialet, charging him with felony hit and run.

Kenneth Vialet. Photo by Fayette County Jail.

“I have decided to forgive Kenneth,” Snyder said. “I have consciously forgiven him and moved on. There’s no benefit to being bitter over something that can’t be changed. That doesn’t help me get better,” he said.

He says his faith calls him to forgive, even when difficult. “If the perfect holy creator God can forgive me for sins against him, then I should be able to forgive someone who wrongs me,” he said.

While it is more than reasonable to understand frustration and resentment from Snyder, he says it is not an approach he believes in.

“I could be mad and bitter, but I don’t think that helps. It doesn’t help me move forward. What helps me is to forgive him, let it go, and focus on the process of recovering,” he said.

Snyder may have made peace with the man who hit him, but his journey to recovery would test him much further.

He had a shattered C1 and badly damaged C2 vertebra along with several skull fractures and a serpentine laceration running across his forehead. Surgery included adding a titanium rod to the base of his skull and fusing his neck. This necessitated a hospital stay of nearly two weeks. Although his neck and skull fractures would heal, he dealt with a myriad of complications. A brain bleed, intense fevers, and pneumonia were all part of his agonizing recovery. All while remaining on ventilators and copious amounts of medications. Sadly, Snyder’s recovery had only just begun.

The five weeks after his incident no longer exist for Snyder. The surgeries on his head and spine, the rehabilitation and recovery in the hospital, bouts of terrible fevers and trauma are all wholly lost to him. He remembers none of it.

“I’m sure it was weird to them because I had been working with them for weeks, but it was like meeting all my therapists for the first time. “I was faced with meeting all of them for the first time and trying to learn and remember names and what therapist does what,” he said.

“It was weird, and it’s still weird to be like, ‘I lived for 1,800 weeks, and there’s five of them I have no recollection at all,” he said.

Snyder returned home at the end of September and soon started working again. Just four months after being air-lifted to a hospital with severe spinal and head injuries, he ran his first 5k race.

“I’ve had a nurse or two look at me and say, ‘you know you’re a miracle, right?’ I don’t like that, and I don’t want to say that about myself. But yes, I am accepting that it is a part of this,” he said.

A recurring sentiment spoken to Snyder’s wife while he was in the hospital was “if.” If he makes it, he would be lucky. If he makes it, she was told, there would be years of recovery, and even then, he would never be the same.

“It’s kind of crazy. It really is,” he said. “I’m grateful, but I don’t fully understand. It’s really weird because apparently there’s something about my attitude and competitive nature that has people from a lot of different backgrounds saying, ‘I knew if somebody was going to come back from this, it was you.’”

The community around Snyder and his family contributed significantly to his recovery. A GoFundMe page was created that received $43,000 to help pay for medical expenses. Some of his coworkers donated vacation time so he could remain salaried while in the hospital. A meal train was quickly developed; something he remembered prevented his family from cooking for months. Snyder says he’s sure he was able to recover so quickly because of the support he received from the community.

“I think part of it is God helping me. I think part of it is the support from the community. There are all sorts of people who I know have offered up prayers, reached out, or brought food. There are so many wonderful things people have done,” he said.

Doctors commented that Snyder’s activity and general fitness contributed to his ability to sustain such serious injuries and yet make a very robust recovery.

“I think there are just a lot of things – my attitude and training as an athlete, being in good shape, and having the right doctors and therapists – all that stuff helped,” he said.

Snyder has a few lasting injuries from his accident and has experienced very few symptoms.

When attending one of his children’s soccer games, however, he started vomiting profusely. A visit to the emergency room revealed that he had a fever of 102 degrees due to a urinary tract infection.

An MRI discovered Hydrocephalous, a condition that occurs when fluid builds up in the deep ventricles of the brain. It’s not uncommon for hydrocephalous to occur in cases like Snyder’s, but he says he has experienced virtually no side effects.

“The Hydrocephalus was really a fluke discovery. I had an artery in my neck that had torn a little bit, so I went into Grady to get a CT scan to see if it had healed,” he said.

Snyder’s artery in his neck had healed well, but doctors concluded while doing the CT scan the ventricles in his head were larger than usual, something a secondary CT scan confirmed.

This prognosis remains the only lasting effect that Snyder has dealt with since the accident. Everyone agrees it is quite miraculous, something he attributes to God.

“I think God has pulled strings. I think God put the right people in my path. The right therapists and the right doctors because they definitely poured into me and helped immensely,” he said.

John Snyder’s life was changed one summer morning in July. While skepticism poured in from doctors about his future, he chose to move forward, progressing at a remarkable rate each day. He also moved forward mentally, forgiving the man who wronged him. His lasting sentiment was not filled with regret or angst. Instead, it was simple yet heartfelt and genuine.

“If you know somebody going through something difficult, reach out to them. Let them know you’re thinking about them and praying for them,” Snyder said. “You can’t imagine how much that will help.”

 

By Michael Cuneo

Michael Cuneo is a news and sports reporter for the Fayette County News. Michael graduated from Georgia State University with a degree in Journalism in 2020. In his off time, Michael enjoys torturing himself as an Atlanta Falcons fan. Follow Michael on twitter @michaelcune