By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — He was born with Wiskott-Aldrich Syndrome, a rare immunodeficiency disorder from which his mother’s brother died as a child.
The same fate awaited Matt Snyder if doctors didn’t intervene. So, at the age of 3, at the University of Minnesota children’s hospital, he received a bone-marrow transplant that saved his life. The donor was a woman from Seattle, a stranger to the Snyders.
The scars on Snyder’s chest and abdomen — he had a splenectomy when he was 2 — are enduring reminders of his medical problems. They also inspire this UVa wrestler, an inspiring figure himself.
“Going into the transplant, I had a very low chance of survival,” Snyder said recently at University Hall. “So ever since I can remember, I’ve always wanted to be a doctor, because I’ve always wanted to give back to the field that gave so much to me.”
Snyder, who’ll be a third-year student in the fall, is taking two classes this summer: an organic-chemistry lab and microeconomics. He had a 3.5 grade-point average last fall and a 4.0 this spring, so it’s almost a given that he’ll do well in those courses. But what really has Snyder pumped this summer is his time spent with Dr. Craig Seto.
Seto, a former wrestler who remains passionate about the sport, is the sports-medicine director in UVa’s Department of Family Medicine. Snyder has been shadowing Seto at work once a week this summer.
“I couldn’t ask for a better opportunity,” Snyder said. “The thing is, I’ve always known I wanted to be a doctor, so it was like, ‘I hope when I go in there it’s what I expect it to be and not something that I’m going to have to completely change my life around for.’
Not to worry. “I went in there, and it’s awesome,” Snyder said.
Seto and Cavaliers coach Steve Garland are good friends, and Seto began working with Garland’s team in 2009-10. Garland told Seto about Snyder’s desire to go into sports medicine, and after a match last season in which Snyder defeated a formidable opponent, Seto went over to congratulate him.
“And I told Matt, ‘Hey, if you’re interested in being a doc, get with me, and I’ll be happy to talk with you about life as a doctor and what that’s like,’ ” recalled Seto, whose roommate at Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk was a former UVa wrestler, Robert Ruland.
Snyder, who’s in the Curry School of Education’s kinesiology program for exercise physiology, was interested. So he and Seto set up a shadowing program.
“What I really want him to see is the lifestyle of a family doctor,” Seto said. “I’m a sports-medicine doctor, but my core training was family medicine. So I wanted him to see the type of patients that we had, the type of interactions that we had, and the spectrum of care that we provide to the patients, so that he can be able to decide for himself, ‘Do I like this atmosphere? Does Dr. Seto seemy happy? Are these patients that I would want to see? Could I see myself living this life?’
“Because when you say, ‘Oh, I want to be a doctor,’ that’s a big black box for people. I want people to understand that we’re servants. We’re out there to help people, and it’s a life of service, and it’s not easy.”
Garland and Seto are aware of Snyder’s medical history.
“Pretty amazing, right?” Garland said. “Go figure: A kid who didn’t have everything handed to him in life is one of our best students.”
Seto said: “He’s got a tremendously compelling story, to say, ‘I should be dead, except for the fact of the medical technology of a bone-marrow transplant.’ If this didn’t work for him, he wouldn’t be here.”
In Snyder, Seto said, he sees a “motivated, smart young man who has got all the characteristics that would make a fabulous physician.”
Wrestlers “learn the basic tenets of hard work, dedication and setting goals,” Seto said, all of which “really pay off when you decide you want to go into medicine.
“Because it’s the same thing. It is hard work. There are many days that you’re like, ‘Why am I doing this?’ Some of the best doctors we have are [former] college athletes, and we love those folks, because we already know that even if they’re not the smartest people in the world, we know they are dedicated.
“And being a good doctor is not about being the smartest guy. It’s about who’s the guy who’s dedicated to take care of his patients, find the answers for questions that just aren’t readily apparent, and the guys that are not afraid to work hard. And I see that all over Matt. I see it in the way that he follows up with me. When he says he’s going to be somewhere, he’s there. If he can’t make it, you get a phone call.
“He’s already a professional, and he’s got wonderful people skills, and you get a sense that this kid cares. He cares about everything that he’s involved with.”
Snyder, who grew up in Lewistown, Pa., not far from Penn State, followed an indirect path to UVa. He began his college career at Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania, honoring his commitment to that school even after Princeton offered him a spot in its wrestling program.
He redshirted as a Bloomsburg freshman in 2008-09, hoping to add some much-needed size to his 5-foot-6 frame, but competed unattached in open tournaments. He soon grew disenchanted with his college choice.
“Right at the start of open tournaments, probably in November, I started to see the coach at Bloom really didn’t want to work with me,” Snyder recalled. “So I was like, ‘I don’t want to stay here and waste my education because of it. I came here for wrestling and knew I was losing out on my education. I don’t want to lose out on both. I’m going to go and get an education somewhere.’
“In the back of my mind every day I was regretting not holding off and applying to Princeton. And I knew I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t do something about it.”
Garland’s top assistant, Scott Moore, had wrestled at Penn State before finishing his career at UVa, and Moore knew — and thought highly of — the Snyder family. The Wahoos had not recruited Snyder when he was in high school, preferring other 125-pounders, but they didn’t pass on him the second time around.
“I thought to myself after meeting him and seeing his track record in [open] tournaments, it’s kind of a no-brainer,” Garland said. “And then he got here and he exceeded all expectations.”
Snyder never has backed away from challenges. After competing at 125 pounds during the first half of the 2009-10 season, he lost his spot in the starting lineup to Ross Gitomer, who narrowly defeated Snyder in a wrestle-off. Without complaint, Snyder moved up to 133. He finished the season as the ACC runner-up in that weight class.
“Two minutes after he lost [the wrestle-off], Snyder is sitting next to Ross, ready to warm up with him, asking, ‘What do you need, Coach?’ ” said Garland, shaking his head in wonder.
“He’s one of the very few kids I’ve ever coached that actually asks what I need. Nobody’s like that anymore.”
Many wrestlers, Garland said, are more concerned with their success than the team’s. “At the end of the day, this kid’s not like that, and his parents aren’t like that,” Garland said. “That’s why I love them so much.”
Snyder has three seasons of wrestling eligibility left. He’s dropping back to 125 pounds this season and fully expects to help the ‘Hoos repeat as ACC champions.
“It’s everything I could ask for,” Snyder said of his experience at UVa. “It’s more than what I could have asked for or what I even expected coming here. The school is awesome. The team is exactly what I was looking for. I didn’t really match with the team at Bloom. They were there to wrestle, and that was it. They thought it was funny that I would study. So I knew I needed to get out of there, and I came here and it was perfect.”
All credit, his coach believes, goes to Snyder.
“It doesn’t matter what I say to him,” Garland said. “He’s going to be determined, whether I meet with him every day on my couch or never say boo to him. That’s why I love the kid. He’s one of those rare individuals who’s completely, 100-percent self-motivated.
“Don’t get me wrong: He responds to coaching, and he wants the coaching. But he’s the type of guy who doesn’t need anybody to help him through life. He’s going to figure it out, and I respect the heck out of that.”