by Julia Carachure
photography by Jennifer Contreras
The game is going strong on the football field, with its players giving everything that they have. Suddenly, a La Verne College player is down on the field. A doctor walks to the field with his black medical bag in one hand. He kneels down to his patient and notices that the player’s toes are pointing the wrong way; his ankle is dislocated. He gently turns and sets back the young man’s joint. Shortly later, the player is taken away from the field, the injury cutting his playing short for the day. The doctor goes back and sits on the bench, observing the game once again.
This is one of the many memories that Dr. Marvin Snell has in mind when he looks back on his many years as the college doctor at the University of La Verne. And he carries the memories with him. Ask him about his many years at La Verne, and he can recount the individual moments like a novelist spinning a story. His life stories sound like a one-man ER TV episode with incredible drama and life-sustaining heroics from the non-assuming college doctor.
Today, the physician looks much younger than his 78 years. Tanned and trim, he appears to be in his late 50s instead. His face does not hold many wrinkles; instead it embodies the fact that he has aged gracefully. Only the glasses perched on his nose suggest his years of practice, indicating that while his eyes may not be as strong as they used to be, his mind still remains sharp.
He was born July 12, 1924, 30 miles south of Springfield, Ill., in the city of Girard. He received his college education first at La Verne College for a year in 1942-’43, where he took his first round of classes as a freshman. He then left LVC and transferred to Manchester College in North Manchester, Ind., staying in the Midwest to finish his pre-med work in 1949. He was away from La Verne for nearly 10 years, but he returned to ULV in 1958 as a doctor. Following a long tenure of service, he says he tried to retire the first time from his University post in 1980. However, replacing the popular doctor proved tough, so he agreed to come back to ULV for a number of years.
As the college physician, his responsibilities were central to the students as well as for establishing policies for their care. Although his most visible athletic responsibility was to the football team as their only physician for home and away games, Dr. Snell also cared for several of ULV’s sport teams. “That involved doing the period of physicals before students started, then being on the sidelines for home games and tending various injuries during the football game,” Dr. Snell says.
Dr. Snell notes that his first on-campus clinic was located in a women’s dormitory. “My first clinic was right down that building right over there in Miller Hall, and it was down in the basement; it was one tiny room,” he laughs as he recalls his first office. “And that was where I saw people, for a number of years.” From there, his office was re-located to a trailer between Miller Hall and Founders Hall for several years. Then, in 1974, with the opening of the Student Center Tents, a bright orange plastic ski-Quonset hut arrangement was set up where the Associated Students Federation Offices now reside, making this location his third office. The current Health Center building at the corner of E and Third streets was acquired by the time that he was planning to leave the University.
One of Dr. Snell’s fondest memories was working with “a wonderful nurse called Harriet Caswell. She was with me for a number of years; we worked together as a team so beautifully. Harriet was very caring, also a very meticulous nurse and had a wonderful way with students. Sometimes, she wouldn’t take much nonsense. She was a very, very emphatic person, really a very caring person. That was probably the greatest thing I got out of it.” But also like many physicians, he has worked with other people who were not as wonderful. He remembers one nurse in particular. “She thought it was perfectly OK to go into the women’s dorm, and without their permission she would walk in the room and pull out the drawers looking for contraception without asking for any permission. She felt comfortable doing that, and that was stopped. I couldn’t accept that. I didn’t think that was quite acceptable.”
Some of the services that he offered to the students of La Verne College included birth control, vaccines and conducting physicals for insurance purposes or sports. He was also consulted for psychological problems and performed some minor surgeries occasionally that usually dealt with a laceration.
Many of the students would see Dr. Snell for acute infections, such as throat and sinus and ear problems. He also dealt with vaginal problems, skin irritations and tumors, urinary tract infections, and he counseled students. Through counseling, he helped explain the nature of the disease the student was dealing with and how to care for oneself. He remembers one young girl was concerned with hereditary problems within her family. “She was concerned whether or not how that would affect her and her family,” he recalls. Dr. Snell was visible on campus, attending many of the school events. He was noted as being a trusted confidant for students dealing with illness and distress.
Some of the most difficult and challenging things Dr. Snell faced were mainly on the football field. The memories of the gridiron injuries are poignant. He tells of the time when “I was called over to see a young man lying on the ground. Instead of his toes pointing forward, they were pointing backwards. He had totally dislocated his ankle joint. I carried with me pain medicine. I injected the pain medicine and went for an ambulance. While we were waiting, we were sort of standing around, and I said, ‘I wonder what would happen if I were to just pull down on that and just gently turn it back into place.’ He had some damage done but at least the deformity was taken care of.”
Another memorable injury Dr. Snell dealt with involved a La Verne player in a game against then archrival University of Redlands. “The game was played at Redlands. I was called on the field because an injured La Verne player had a fractured leg. We got him off the field and were waiting for the ambulance to come. Meanwhile, on the field, two plays later, another time out was called because a second La Verne player had a fractured leg at the same time, so that was very dramatic.”
“Of course you don’t like to see those kinds of episodes. Probably one of the most stressful situations was an LVC quarterback who was playing against Azusa Pacific University on the home field, and the quarterback kept the ball and was determined to get to the end zone. The opposing player was just as determined to keep him out, and they had a tremendous collision right at the goal line. The LV player was down on the ground, unconscious, and then he had a convulsive seizure. This was, I think, his third significant head injury of that season, and I just made the decision that he should not play anymore, that playing football is a great game, but it is not worth potential permanent damage, such as brain damage, so I advised him not to, and of course he really wanted to play. He was a very great competitor.” Later, Dr. Snell received a call from the quarterback’s wife begging him to let her husband play again because he was feeling uncomfortable and experiencing anxiety. But Dr. Snell remained firm with his decision. Many of the student players were also asking him why he could not play. But given the history of head injuries the player had suffered, Dr. Snell felt it was too much of a risk.
With his college duties, Dr. Snell also owned a private practice clinic on Bonita Avenue, the present site of University Relations. Through the clinic, he was on-call for the University during the night. “I would take calls at night time just like I would take call for anybody else. If it were a Cal Poly student, and they needed help, I’d take calls for them too. I had some help; I traded calls with other physicians too.”
On average, he received about four or five calls at night, but not many from La Verne students. He recalls that one night he received a strange call from a woman “She reached me at 2:30 in the morning, saying, ‘My husband wants you to come see him.’ I answered, ‘Well, tell me about it.’ She said, ‘Well, he thinks he’s had a stroke.’ So I asked, ‘What makes him think that?’ She said, ‘He just thinks he’s had a stroke; you should come see him.’ I said, ‘Does he have stroke symptoms? Is his face weak? Does he have trouble speaking?’ She said, ‘No.’ I said, ‘Can he move his arms and legs?’ She said, ‘Yes.’ I asked, ‘What evidence do you have?’ She answered, ‘He doesn’t feel good, and he thinks you ought to come see him; he thinks he’s had a stroke.'”
“This conversation went on for, I don’t know, it seemed like 10 minutes, I don’t know,” the doctor laughs. “Finally, I said, ‘Fine, well I know you think your husband’s had a stroke, but from what I can tell, it doesn’t sound as though it’s a serious problem, but I assure you I’ll see him first thing in the morning before I go to the hospital.’ There was a pause, and then she said, ‘Well, Dr. Snell, do you think you can go back to sleep now?'” he recalls as he laughs. “As a matter of fact, I couldn’t; I was kind of upset with her, but I did finally go back to sleep.”
He did see the patient the next day. “He did not have a stroke, but something made him anxious. You know, one thing that physicians have to learn to deal with is not only the illness but the anxiety related to the illness. A lot of times, it’s just reassurance that you need to give the patient, and that really is often sufficient. Obviously at times there’s a need, but a lot of times, the family needs reassurance from the physician, saying everything’s OK; there’s nothing too serious. I think maybe, from my perspective, modern physicians sometimes forget that anxiety is part of the illness, and the anxiety may be all the illness; it may be the only illness so that needs to be treated and not ignored.”
Dr. Snell started several clinics during his career, including the Urgent Care clinic on Garey Avenue, just south of Bonita Avenue in Pomona. He says he started it mainly due to complaints about health care. “Almost all of my colleagues were complaining about-No. 1, the long waits in the hospital emergency room, and the charge and structure in the hospital emergency room in which coming in for a minor cut just had a basic charge the same as someone who came in with a serious injury. “The charges were fairly steep, but mostly it was the waiting and the lack of personal attention that I think we complained about the most. My colleagues complained, and I complained, and I decided that there might be something that I could do about that. About that time, in other parts of the country, care units, and foundation centers were springing up, and I thought this would be the best place to have one.”
The Urgent Care clinic was opened in 1985. Dr. Snell devoted his time to the clinic to the point where he felt he was working himself to a frazzle. Still, he says it was an interesting experience for him. Even though he had established a reciprocity agreement with area physicians for patients to be referred to his clinic, he soon discovered it was not happening. He found out that many other local doctors saw him as the competition. “I saw patients for my colleagues. I did what I could do. What I would do was write up a report and send it to the patient’s doctor, explaining the problem, and what I had done.”
Following, Dr. Snell started a second practice, in which he took emergency and night calls. Mainly, he says he took the calls himself at night and saw patients the next day, but it became too stressful for him. In response, he gave up practicing obstetrics. Dr. Snell hired people to take over the clinic and established yet another clinic in San Dimas.
He also established a clinic in the mountainous region in Castaner, Puerto Rico in 1942, which was sponsored by the Church of the Brethren, with an emphasis on the following areas: medicine, education and agriculture. The medicine building was a rustic little hospital with 30 beds in it in a barricade/U-shaped type of building that had a tin roof, no glass on the windows, just shutters, and open rafters. He had just finished his two years of residency when he was called by the Church to take the position in Puerto Rico. He was there for three years.
He recalls that he practiced rustic medicine. “There were a lot of worm infestations in children. The little mountain community had more than 90 of their children infested with worms. About five miles away, we figured about 95 percent of the children had worm infestation. I admitted a young boy, probably about 7 or 8 years old. He had a bowel obstruction, and I had to open up his abdomen to open up the small intestine. It was literally packed with worms, really disgusting. These were long, big worms, and the worst thing is that it was totally packed. I opened the bowel and pulled them all out and sewed him back together. That was really something.”
He also treated wounds caused by machetes, a wide bladed knife that is used mainly to cut down trees or grass. Many of the workers would often get into fights with the machetes. Dr. Snell recalls one patient he saw with a machete wound that cut so deep that it ended up being close to the base of the skull. “It went all through every tissue, just barely missing the spinal cord.” He also treated fractures, performed gallbladder operations, Caesarean sections, appendectomies and hysterectomies. But the important event was building a new hospital. He remembers the enthusiasm that occurred among the hospital workers. He was approached by the head of the pharmacy who asked for permission to arrange a meeting with the employees.
“So they met in what was the dining hall, and I was working in the clinic. I heard all these loud voices, excited voices. They had decided that they would donate their income for three days-one day per month for three months for the hospital fund. That was not a lot of money, but for these people who were really on a low, low earning salary, that was a big big donation.”
After seeing this transpire before his eyes, Dr. Snell had an idea to make this project into a campaign. But he needed a key player to pull it off. “Why don’t we get the wife of the governor and get her to be campaign chairman?” we thought. We believed that she probably would let us put her name on the campaign literature. But she became extremely and personally active in the campaign and arranged for a fundraising meeting in the small mountainous community of Castaner. She invited many of the powerful and influential businessmen of San Juan, Puerto Rico to come to our hospital for this fundraising event.”
After she got involved, it became a big campaign. The governor’s wife headed a reception in which she keynoted what was being done to raise money as well as set an amount of how much money to raise. Dr. Snell describes the day of the reception, “There was a big canopy and a big concrete floor outdoors the size of three basketball courts used for the event. The entire area was covered with construction paper supported by wire and poles. The meal featured “lechon asado,” which is pig roasted over an open pit- four of them-and many other dishes as well.” The governor’s wife told the crowd that they would raise about $150,000, but that she needed three people to donate $25,000. “She had it all worked on how she was going to raise the money all in one sitting. She called on the donors in the audience by asking them to come up with donations from $15,000 to $20,000. When these contributions were made, she solicited donations of lesser value.”
To make a huge difference such as the one Dr. Snell did in Puerto Rico takes much determination. What is his secret to success? His answer: “I guess you have to have enthusiasm for what the program is and then the foolishness to carry it off,” he says, laughing and adding, “And just stick with it; I don’t know.”
He thinks some more and adds, “The risk taking is a funny thing. There is nothing that guarantees success from the start of something. No way. You have an idea, and you think it’s going to work, but unless you’re willing to take some risks – put yourself and research into it – and then put that up with security for success of the project, it won’t get off the ground. Some simply won’t do that. There are people who won’t take that risk; they don’t want to be secured, and, frankly, everything I’ve done has not always been successful. Fortunately, I have a wife who is very understanding.”
“You certainly run into some problems along the way, and that’s something that needs to be worked through, and you just stick with it. I don’t think it’s quite a great secret I had. The basic thing is, of course, the relationship between physician and patient. These are all related to medicine and better medical care. Somehow, you have to get the idea to people that you really care and really work for them and work for their health.”
“As I got older, I found that the thing that got more and more difficult was assuming the responsibility of directing the patient’s care. You don’t just see the patient and say, ‘Well, that’s it, goodbye.’ I didn’t realize how much pressure this responsibility was creating until I retired from practice. It became more burdensome, and it put more pressure on me. Well, I am glad that I no longer have that pressure. But I really missed the contacts with my patients and the friendships that developed from those relationships.”
Now that he is retired, he is serving as a surgical assistant. “I learned that at the hospital sometimes the surgeons could not easily find an assistant. For critical moments, they needed an assistant, and they couldn’t find anybody to do it. So I thought, ‘Hey, I could do that. I always did enjoy surgery, enjoyed being part of the surgical procedures, follow the pieces, so I said, ‘I can do that.'”
As part of his duties, he is on call, carrying a pager with him in case a surgeon calls for him to assist. He does, however, have the option of deciding whether to take the job. For instance, if he has an important engagement, he will return the call and explain to the surgeon paging him that he is unable to assist.
“I get some interesting cases that I’d never would have gotten involved in when I had my practice. The most interesting one is I worked with a pediatric surgeon, and we operated on a one-day old infant who weighed a little more than one pound. The premature child had a heart condition that needed surgery, and it wasn’t a big heart at all. It was the size, you can imagine, of a small chicken.”
Whenever he is not performing surgery, he also has the time to read. Favorite subjects are history and golf. He recently read a book on John Adams. He also travels with his wife Marie, whom he has been married to for 25 years. Recent trips have included Japan and China. He is planning a trip to Spain and possibly Morocco. He also traveled within the United States, namely the central states, along with Idaho and Montana. He has also gone river rafting and also takes trips “here and there” in California. He learned how to fly an airplane while he was in La Verne as a physician, at Cable Airport in Upland. He flew for about 20 years until he developed an ear condition, which no longer allowed him to fly. He has five children, three from his first marriage.
He says he has come to an important realization about being retired. “When you are retired, you wake up in the morning, and you say to yourself, ‘I don’t have to get up if I don’t want to,'” he laughs. “You have the option. Before, I had to get up because the world was waiting out there. Now, I can just say, ‘Well, I’ll turn over and go back to sleep. No way that I can do that, but I can. I have that option,” he says.
Many people do not do so much in life because either they do not have the determination or simply do not have the time. But for Dr. Snell, it is sticking to something he loves and enjoys doing – medicine – that drives him to accomplish anything he sets to do in life. It is quite evident that he has done just that and will continue to make a difference.