The past four months have been grueling for John Snaza.
The Thurston County sheriff has undergone surgeries to repair a broken vertebrae in his neck, and to insert a rod in his left arm. He has a few new scars on his legs and face, and he’s missing the tip of his left index finger.
But Snaza is back in Thurston County, and he says he’s eager to get back to work in the new year.
“The Sheriff’s Office is my life, it’s what I do,” Snaza said. “I’m lucky that it’s what I get to do for a living and I’m happy to be going back.”
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Snaza has been absent from work since an Aug. 23 motorcycle crash in Montana. He was hospitalized at Kootenai Health in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, and later transferred to Harborview Rehabilitation Center in Seattle.
He returned to Thurston County in early October, and has been recovering in Yelm with his fiancée, Amber Koebberling.
The sheriff said his speedy recovery wouldn’t have been possible without the support of family, friends, the Sheriff’s Office and the community.
“Every day, everywhere we go, we run into people who know him, who tear up and say, ‘We’re so glad you’re back, we’re so glad you’re OK,’ ” Koebberling said.
“How can I ever say thank you to all the people who have supported me?” Snaza said. “I don’t think I can, but I really want to.”
He announced last week that he’ll return to the Sheriff’s Office at the beginning of the new year, working part time for now. Snaza said he wants to be involved in running the department, but he needs to keep healing, too.
“It will be really good to have him back. It’s a good way to start the new year,” said Undersheriff Tim Braniff, who has been running the Sheriff’s Office in Snaza’s absence.
“The men and women in this agency are phenomenal, they’ve kept this place going. But they’ll be happy to have him back.”
Snaza said he doesn’t remember the day of the crash. In fact, he’s missing about a month and a half of memories following the event.
He said he knows that he went to Montana with some friends on a motorcycle trip. It was his first time going on a ride like that.
“It was cool to take a vacation with good friends,” Snaza said.
Trooper Steve Gaston of the Montana Highway Patrol reported in August that Snaza and his friends had been traveling on Montana Highway 200 near milepost 23 in western Montana when he lost control of his bike while driving around a curve. He went off an embankment.
Snaza was riding a 2009 Harley-Davidson, and neither speed nor weather was a factor in the crash, Gaston said.
He wasn’t wearing a helmet — which is legal in Montana for motorcyclists 18 and older.
(Helmets) do save lives, and I just got lucky. I’ve got some scars to prove it.
Sheriff John Snaza
Luckily, a nurse and her volunteer firefighter father were driving behind the group. Snaza said he later learned that the nurse administered first aid, and her father knew where to go to call 911, because the area had no cell phone reception.
“They more than likely helped save my life,” Snaza said. “I feel very blessed, very fortunate that they were there.”
Snaza said he’s not sure why he wasn’t wearing a helmet, because he doesn’t remember the day of the crash. He said he was wearing it earlier in the trip.
Koebberling said his friends provided some explanation.
“They were heading to a friend’s house for dinner, and it was the last 10 miles and it was really hot,” Koebberling said. “They all decided that’s what they wanted to do because they were almost done riding.”
The sheriff said he doesn’t plan to ride on the road again — but he may ride a small dirt bike. And in the future, he plans to wear a helmet.
“They do save lives, and I just got lucky,” Snaza said. “I’ve got some scars to prove it.”
Most of Snaza’s injuries were to his left side, although he came away with scars on both legs. He broke his left clavicle and scapula. He broke his neck, all the ribs on his left side and the ulna and radius in his left arm.
“I was lucky to be able to keep my whole arm, that’s what the doctors told me,” Snaza said. “So I feel very lucky about that.”
He continues to go to rehab to work on his left hand, which he said still hurts. A portion of his index finger was amputated because of an infection.
“I go to therapy as much as I can, I go three or four times a week,” Snaza said. “And if I don’t go, Amber’s my therapist. I’m pretty lucky.”
Four months ago he was unrecognizable. You wouldn't have even known who he was.
Amber Koebberling, Snaza’s fiancée
A large scar runs down the left side of his forehead, bisecting his eyebrow, and he has several scars on the top of his head. Snaza joked that now people can tell him and his twin brother, Lewis County Sheriff Rob Snaza, apart.
“I can’t believe how it’s all healed,” Koebberling said. “Four months ago he was unrecognizable. You wouldn’t have even known who he was. But after a few weeks, the features started to become more recognizable as the swelling started to go down.”
Snaza did suffer some memory loss after the crash. Koebberling said she taught him how to count money again, and doctors made sure he could do everyday tasks, such as scheduling and managing his finances.
Doctors said Snaza may have trouble remembering details, but he said he hasn’t encountered any issues so far.
“My neurologist said I’m back to normal, whatever normal is,” Snaza said.
Throughout the ordeal, Snaza lost about 40 pounds. He said it’s frustrating to be weaker than he once was, to not be able to do the things he used to do.
“I’ve been doing really great,” Snaza said. “Obviously, I want to get back into better shape, I want to get my hand back. But we’re working really hard.”
The community support
In the weeks following the crash, the community rallied around Snaza, raising money to support his family as they traveled back and forth to Idaho to be with him.
On Sept. 17, the Seventeen51 Restaurant & Bistro at Panorama in Lacey and Mr. Doug’s Restaurant in Yelm served pancake breakfasts in exchange for donations. And on Oct. 2, CopsForHire hosted a fundraiser at Olympia’s Port Plaza.
“He didn’t even know that this stuff was going on,” Koebberling said. “When I started showing him pictures, he started tearing up. It was fun to show him how much support he had.”
Lacey Fire District 3 and Thurston County Medic 1 teamed up to bring Snaza back to Washington. Lacey Fire’s Chief Steve Brooks said they knew the sheriff would want to find a rehabilitation facility closer to home, so they started working out a plan.
Three Lacey Fire employees and one Medic 1 paramedic traveled to Idaho together in one of Medic 1’s backup units. Brooks explained the costs of the trip were covered by a donated fund to help injured public safety workers.
“We didn’t have to use any public dollars for it,” Brooks said.
During the trip, Snaza was able to talk and communicate with the firefighters and paramedic. He said it’s one of the first things he remembers after his crash.
“It was just a small way to pay back the law enforcement community for all the help they give us,” Brooks said.
Koebberling said the family has been overwhelmed with cards and emails containing warm wishes throughout the past four months. Snaza hasn’t even had a chance to go through all of them.
But he wants the community to know he’s grateful.
“For a guy like me, it’s really humbling,” Snaza said. “Especially in a day when law enforcement isn’t looked at as fondly. But I realized that people in this community really respect what we do.”
“I’m really thankful that I can continue serving the citizens of Thurston County.”