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Heart of a lion


Jack Snook continues to pile up milestones after heart transplant

by: TIDINGS PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - It has been nearly 21 years since Jack Snook underwent an emergency heart transplant, and his renewed vigor for life never abated after that moment. Shown here with his wife, Joan.Almost 21 years ago, 14 days after what was supposed to be a routine heart procedure, Jack Snook opened his eyes and heard six fateful words from his wife, Joan.

“Jack, you’ve had a heart transplant.”

Thinking it was just a terrible dream, Snook shut his eyes and drifted back out of consciousness. When he awoke again, he heard the same news a second time.

This was no dream.

And even after a successful transplant, Snook’s condition was dire. His kidneys were shutting down, he had renal failure and infections were plaguing his body. At that point, even the modest five-year life expectancy for heart transplant patients seemed like a distant possibility for Snook. by: TIDINGS PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Back in 1993, the life expectancy after a heart transplant was just five years. Snook fought past that prognosis, always keeping his family in mind as an inspiration. Shown here with his wife, Joan.

Which is why, as the 21st anniversary of his transplant approaches in June, Snook, who lives in West Linn, still marvels at his luck. He stood at the edge of death — more than once — in 1993, and yet here he is, watching grandchildren adjust to high school and appreciating all of the little things in life that he’ll never again take for granted.

“If it had to happen to somebody, I’m glad it was me,” Snook said. “I think I’ve dealt with it very well, and I’m a better person because of it.”

• • •

Before a botched surgical procedure changed his life forever, Snook served as fire chief at Tualatin Valley Fire and Rescue. His family lived in Lake Oswego, and he scheduled the surgery for the week after his daughter’s wedding in June 1993.

Snook had been born with bicuspid aortic Disease — his aortic valve had just two flaps rather than the normal three. One of the chambers in his heart was becoming enlarged as a result, and the surgical procedure was supposed to fix the dysfunctional valve.

As Snook explained it, in layman’s terms, the valve his doctor put in was too big for his heart, causing a massive failure when he was in recovery.

“At some point, I was semi-conscious,” Snook said. “I felt the heart attacks and I knew everybody was scrambling around, and I remember loading up in the ambulance to go from Good by: SUBMITTED PHOTO - Snook's grandchildren, featured here on Easter, help motivate him to take 31 pills every day and stay as healthy as possible.Samaritan Hospital to OHSU. But I don’t have any recollection of getting to OHSU.”

Snook was placed on life support, and it was soon clear that his only hope was to receive a heart transplant. After three-and-a-half days of life support without a match, Snook’s transplant surgeon — Dr. Gary Ott — was just about ready to call off the effort when he received a last-minute page that a match had been found.

“They were walking down the hall to tell Joan and the kids that they were going to shut the machines off,” Snook said, “when his pager went off. They got notice that a heart was available.”

In an ironic twist, the heart came from a donor named Scott Jackson, who lived and grew up in Central Point — Snook’s hometown. Snook had previously served as a city councilor and mayor in Central Point, and the donor’s family learned about his situation in a local newspaper article.

“There was an article that read, ‘Ex-mayor of Central Point fights for life in Portland,’” Snook said. “(The donor’s wife) read the article and said to the family, ‘If he can’t make it, I want to donate his organs.’

“It’s such a bizarre thing.”

Snook still carries Jackson’s obituary in his wallet to this day.

• • •

Even one miracle wasn’t enough to bring Snook completely out of the woods. In all, he spent 37 days in the intensive care unit and a total of 54 days in the hospital before finally returning home. At one point, he didn’t think he would ever leave.

“There was a dark point,” Snook said. “I took my wife and children’s hands and said, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore.’ The exact words were, ‘I can’t take any more pain.’

“I couldn’t see it working ... I was really sick, I said ‘that’s it.’”

But just three days later, Snook gathered his family again with an entirely different message. Somehow, a switch had been flipped.

“We’re going to get out of here, and we’re going to move on with our life,” Snook told them.

He left the hospital nine days later.

• • •

Snook returned to work as fire chief, but only for a year. His days maxed out at six to seven hours, and it didn’t feel right to continue if he couldn’t give 100 percent.

So he retired, and focused instead on getting well and volunteering his time at the St. Mary’s Home for Boys. Every Thursday for seven years, Snook worked with 18 boys at the home — some of whom would go on to spend Thanksgiving or Christmas at the Snook home.

“It was an extraordinary time for me,” Snook said. “It really helped me, I think, during those times after the heart transplant.”

It wasn’t until 1996 or 1997, as Snook remembers, that he truly began to feel a sense of normalcy creep in after the trauma of the heart transplant.

The anniversaries have piled up since then, and now, Snook jokes about beating the Chinese record of 26 years living after a heart transplant.

“I say, ‘we’re going to take the Chinese down at something,’” Snook said.

Rae Sullivan, a transplant nurse coordinator at Providence Health Clinic, met Snook about 10 years ago and called his success “very inspirational.”

“Boy, if that’s what you look like after a transplant, sign me up,” Sullivan said.

With all the time that’s past since the transplant, Snook tries not to dwell on his unique circumstances. He settled out of court with the doctor who performed his original surgery, and generally thinks of himself as no different from any other 64-year old.

“I don’t even really think about being a heart transplant anymore,” Snook said. “I still take 31 pills a day. Other than the pills — which I take very quickly — I don’t really think about it that much. I think that’s a very positive thing.”

• • •

When Snook heard about another West Linn resident, Stuart Bailey, who recently had a sudden heart transplant, he wasted no time getting in contact with him through mutual friends.

“We’re text buddies now,” Snook said.

Snook told Bailey what he could expect moving forward, and assured him that it was possible to have a normal life after such a traumatic procedure.”With transplants, it’s just saying ‘OK, there’s someone out there. That inspires me, that gives me hope that I can do the same thing,’” Snook said. “I think that’s what he needed to hear from me more than anything — that it does work and you can have a productive life.

“I wish I could have heard that.”