Back to life

After nearly dying in an accident that took his hands, Jay Snellen persevered and has found his calling as a youth softball coach.
Monday, September 29, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 4:32 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Snellen had broken free from the line. He tumbled down the rooftop. Lueckenott and Jay Snellen’s brother-in-law, Vic Bentlage, caught Snellen at the edge of the roof, barely keeping him from falling three stories.

Snellen, 51, a Missouri Pride softball coach, can’t remember much about Aug. 5, 1970, or the next few days, but he says he was putting the last row of sheeting on the top edge of the building and that he slipped, fell, and in falling, reached out to the wires, which grounded to him.

It was a hot day, and Snellen was covered in sweat. The wires had no insulation, and when he reached out, the wires reached back.

Free from the power lines, Snellen lay dead on the rooftop; 7,200 volts had just passed through his body. Bentlage pounded on Snellen’s chest and then began to give his brother-in-law mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

“I just didn’t believe he was going to be dead,” Bentlage says.

Bentlage had never formally learned CPR.

“It’s really odd; the night before on TV they were showing CPR and how they do it,” Bentlage says. “My wife and I were talking, and I said, ‘Hell, I’d never be able to do that.’”

The next day he found himself doing it. Bentlage showed Lueckenott how to work the chest, and eventually, they brought Snellen back to life.

When Snellen came to, he was wild. The men had to pin him down to control him. He was so wild the ambulance driver initially refused to put him in the car. Bentlage persuaded the ambulance driver to take Snellen, but Bentlage and Lueckenott had to ride with him, holding Snellen down all the way into town.

Bentlage sat in the ambulance and held Snellen tightly. Bentlage was the only person who could calm him. They had been lifelong friends. They had grown up together, raced cars together, worked together. Bentlage had even married Snellen’s older sister, Donna.

Snellen stayed in Jefferson City’s St. Mary’s Hospital for six weeks. During that time, he had 10 operations. Tubes were placed inside his arms, beneath the veins, to keep morphine and Demerol drips going.

“I hope nobody has to feel the pain I felt in those six weeks,” he says.

On the third day, the doctors removed the bandages that covered his hands.

They were black.

For two more days, the doctors waited to see if there were any signs of tissue growth, but with the risk of infection increasing, they couldn’t wait any longer. Snellen’s hands had to be amputated.

Snellen went to St. Louis’ Jewish Hospital for rehabilitation training, but no one in the hospital had worked with a double-bilateral hand amputee.

“They really didn’t have a lot of things they could show me,” Snellen says.

His rehab lasted one week.

Things he once took for granted, he not only had trouble doing but had no training in how to do them. Tasks such as turning doorknobs, brushing his teeth and writing became tremendous challenges.

“You don’t realize how much you use your hands,” he says. “And your fingers have feeling, and when you reach out and touch something you feel it. I don’t. You don’t realize how much you roll your wrist back and forth. I don’t have that.”

Snellen won’t talk at length of how his life changed in the first years after the accident, but there are glimpses in his words.

“It probably took a couple of years before I really felt like a lost soul,” Snellen says.

He attributes that feeling of being a “lost soul” more to people moving in different directions and away from one another than the direct loss of his hands.

“We all started getting older, and people started going in different directions, and it wasn’t the same old group of friends,” Snellen says. “I didn’t really have a sense of direction.”

When he was in St. Mary’s Hospital, Snellen received 20 to 30 shots of painkillers a day. He left the hospital addicted to painkillers. In six weeks, he had gone from being a kid who had just graduated from high school and who had dreamed of becoming a skilled carpenter to a kid who had lost his hands and the career he had begun.

He had entered into a world that wasn’t prepared for a person without hands and wasn’t prepared to deal with a person without hands.

No longer able to work as a carpenter, Snellen enrolled in classes at Lincoln University, where he says he earned good grades, but quit after 18 months. He was used to working outdoors. He was used to working with his hands.

In a classroom, he felt like he wasn’t going anywhere. So he went back to work for Bentlage doing construction. This time, he was a laborer and not a skilled carpenter.

Going back didn’t allow him to move forward with his life though.

“It wasn’t going to be a workable situation,” he says. “It was time to move on. Hell, I wasn’t going to be a construction worker. I couldn’t be a skilled carpenter anymore. I could be a laborer.”

Snellen’s substance abuse escalated.

“It just got worse and worse and worse,” Bentlage says. “He just got involved with a bunch of bad friends. His friends were all on that stuff, too.”

In the fall of 1976, Snellen moved to Columbia to receive professional help.

“That was the best thing that ever happened to him,” Bentlage says.

Snellen’s life completely turned. He took a job with the Harry S Truman Memorial Veteran’s Hospital in 1977, where he met his wife, Patty. After working a number of jobs, he became the hospital’s gardener. He retired from the hospital in 2001 because of varicose veins in his legs.

Although Snellen and Bentlage grew up together and have been lifelong friends, they have never talked about Bentlage saving Snellen’s life. Their relationship, which they describe as a father-son type, has become distanced over time.

“Jay was a youngster who was just full of fire,” Bentlage says. “He never quit on nothing, and nothing was too tough for him to do. He was like a son to me.”

Says Snellen: “For many years, I worshipped Vic like he was my Dad. I thought that he was God. I know that when I got hurt, it killed Vic. It killed him. It took something away from him because I am sure that he felt responsible. He wasn’t responsible. It was an accident.”

In retirement, Snellen can be found doing many things. He is an avid hunter and snow skier. He continues to garden, but softball is his passion.

He began coaching when his daughter, Jessica, wanted to play competitive softball. She had trouble making a competitive team, so in 1995, he and some other parents created a competitive team, the Columbia Blitz. The team struggled, but he fell in love with softball coaching.

He works with three teams: He coaches Missouri Pride’s 14-and-under team and the Downtown Optimist’s 14-and-under fall league team, and he assists with Pilot Grove High’s team.

Snellen’s practices maintain a positive tone. Girls practice bunts, field fly balls, take turns throwing around the bases and fielding grounders. The dugout is filled with chatter. Assistant coaches and parents help out by hitting grounders, shagging balls and lugging the pitching machine to the mound.

There’s a sense that Snellen’s success as a coach – his 12-and-under Missouri Pride team finished 33rd at this summer’s American Fastpitch Association’s national tournament – is dependent on the role of not only his players, but also the involvement of their parents.

“There’s three pieces to the puzzle,” he says.

He lists off the players, the parents and finally the coaches.

His coaching style is a mixture of words and visual cues. He goes over batting stances with an imaginary bat held between his prosthetic hands. He does the same going over throwing motions and fielding techniques: Throwing with an imaginary ball or fielding with an imaginary glove.

His technique, the way he positions his body, steps through a throw or into a pitch, is flawless. He is constantly using his players as examples of how to play the game, never of how not to play the game.

His love for softball is reflected in what people see in him. Todd Lorenz, pitcher Claire Lorenz’ father, sees Snellen’s passion for the game.

“I think it’s just amazing,” he says. “An example of his passion is that his daughter no longer plays softball, and he still chooses to share his expertise with everyone else.”

George Marshall, Missouri Pride co-founder, sees a man committed to kids.

“He’s focused on the kids,” he says. “He’s a self-motivated person. He’s a self-starter. He’s teaching a non-Pride team just to teach kids.”

Katherine Steponovich, a fall league pitcher and catcher, sees a coach who keeps the game fun.

“He just makes softball more fun than other coaches who take it real seriously,” she says.

He does not connect the spirit he exhibits around his team with the changes he went through after his accident, but there are traces in his words. When he describes success, he describes failure. When he describes effort, he describes mistakes.

“It’s not only just about being softball players, it’s creating self-esteem for these young ladies,” he says.

“In order to be successful, I had to learn how to be a failure, and we all fail at things we do, but if you want something bad enough, you learn from your failures or your mistakes to achieve success.

“And believe me, it’s in our daily lives. It’s not just softball. Not everything goes our way.”

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