Dr. Richard K. Snyder summarizes his medical career with a simple statement: “The gift I received of spending most of my life being a healer is not my gift. It is a gift given to me by God. I must never forget that.”
Snyder, a resident at Luther Crest, earlier this year received a Lifetime Achievement Award as part of the 2017 Lehigh Valley Business Healthcare Heroes awards, which honors individuals and organizations that have made a significant impact on the quality of health care in the Greater Lehigh Valley.
Snyder’s medical career spans more than forty years. Its impetus began in his junior year at Allentown High School, when his family doctor convinced him he should study medicine.
“The thing that appealed to me about being a doctor is that I would be able to help people,” Snyder says. “It was never about money.”
Yet family money was tight at the time, so after high-school graduation, Snyder met with the dean of Muhlenberg College. He told the dean he needed to get all the credits required to attend medical school in two-and-one-half to three years, but the dean said it couldn’t be done.
Not one to give up, Snyder approached Dean of Students Haps Benfer, who agreed to work with him.
While attending college, Snyder worked nights and weekends on the switchboard at the Allentown Osteopathic Hospital. While he did not gain enough credits for an undergraduate degree, he did earn what was required to enter the Philadelphia College of Osteopathy.
He and his wife, Audrey, were married shortly after that (they celebrated their 65th wedding anniversary this past August). Mrs. Snyder worked and was instrumental in helping him graduate from the medical school in 1956, acquiring his Doctor of Osteopathy degree.
In 1957, after serving his internship at Allentown Osteopathic Hospital, Snyder opened a private practice in the lower level of his south Allentown split-level home. At the time, office visits were $3 and house calls were $5. He says, “If ‘Grandma’ could not pay me a few days later, she would send her best chocolate cake, and that was payment enough.”
Snyder worked hard. As a solo practitioner, he was called out at all hours of the day and night. There were no cell phones or answering services in those early days. “The phone rang right alongside the bed,” he says.
Snyder delivered many babies and helped many individuals and families make the various transitions that occur in the period from birth to death. The practice became very busy very quickly. After a number of years and the birth of three children, his wife told him: “We need you.”
Fortunately, the Allentown Osteopathic Hospital in 1966 was creating a new medical director/director of medical education position and offered Snyder the role. After much prayer, he accepted the position even though it resulted in a decrease in income. But his wife had reiterated, “We don’t want the money; we want you.”
Snyder was responsible for ensuring the quality of health care within the hospital and recruiting, training and mentoring new interns and staff physicians. He built up the intern program and partnered with the Philadelphia College of Osteopathy to enable third- and fourth-year medical students to expand their experience at the Allentown facility.
Eventually, Snyder became president of the national organization known as the Academy of Osteopathic Directors of Medical Education.
“Not only were you my doctor, but you also were my friend ....”
Following the osteopathic tradition, Snyder embraced a different approach to illness, keeping in mind that inside the body with the disease was a human being with all kinds of questions and concerns. He believed it was the physician’s responsibility to see the individual as a whole person.
“I loved to teach, and one of my questions to the neophyte physicians would be ‘What diseases are most prevalent in the elderly?’ The young physicians would name diseases such as diabetes or heart failure, which I wrote on the blackboard. When they were done, I would slowly erase those words and replaced them with one word: loneliness. Then I would create an environment for us to discuss how to handle a lonely grandmother living alone in a second-floor apartment,” he says.
In the 1980s, sensing the impending change of medicine into a corporate structure, Snyder resigned his hospital position and opened a private practice again. He continued in that practice until his retirement in 1998, when he turned it over to his son-in-law, Dr. Rob Matta.
Throughout most of his career, Snyder donated time and service to the Allentown Fire Department. At the time, EMS services didn’t exist as they do today, so the Allentown Communications Center called Snyder out for every three-plus-alarm fire and he remained on the scene providing care until the fire was extinguished.
“I’ve seen some bad things,” Snyder says. He recalls a fire in which several children perished. Recognizing the expressions on firefighters’ faces, he confirmed their evaluation but immediately advised that the children be transported to an emergency room so that pronouncements could take place there and not in front of the crowd that had gathered.
Similarly, he handled a tragic bus accident involving the death of children from the New York area. “I remained in the morgue until all the families had arrived to identify their deceased children,” he says, “It’s something you never forget.”
Upon his retirement, Snyder was named the first honorary commissioner of fire in the Allentown Fire Department.
His many accomplishments extend beyond medicine.
Shortly after his retirement, Dr. Snyder’s oldest son—a teacher and head basketball coach at William Allen High School—asked him to develop a mentoring program for members of the high school basketball team.
The doctor traveled to Philadelphia to become certified as a trainer of mentors. He then created a mentoring program, which when it began nearly 10 years ago was one of just a handful of such programs for high-school basketball teams across the country. In fact, the group still meets monthly in the Bistro at Luther Crest.
Today, “Doc Snyder” (as he is lovingly called at Luther Crest) arises every morning at 4 a.m. and spends his first few hours in prayer, meditation and Bible study. He also is active in his church and spends as much time as he can with his wife, three children, and three granddaughters.
He notes that he also reads whatever he wishes—a selection that no longer includes medical texts.
Occasionally, however, Snyder reads through cards his patients gave him over the years. “The ones that still touch my heart,” he says, “are those that read, ‘Not only were you my doctor, but you also were my friend.’”