Rare blood condition can’t knock down PJP sophomore Snyder, especially after meeting hero Messi

Andrew Snyder got the kick of a lifetime.

For some, their hero is close to home. Then there are those like the soccer-loving Snyder. The 16-year-old Collegeville native and Pope John Paul II sophomore could only admire his hero from afar. Very far.

That all changed last October when Snyder met a diminutive soccer star named Lionel Messi.

Also known as the greatest soccer player in the world.

But FC Barcelona, the Argentina-born Messi’s club team in Spain, doesn’t simply go around making random calls asking people to come to their training ground to meet their biggest star.

Fortunately for Snyder, he had the Make-A-Wish Foundation on his team.

“I never thought it could possibly happen,’ Snyder said.

But that was only made possible because of the kick Snyder received from his health three years earlier.

* * *

For most of his life, Andrew Snyder wasn’t the most likely of the four Snyder brothers to be making a hospital visit. That was unquestionably Nicholas, Andrew’s older brother, who is now 17 and attends Perkiomen Valley High School.

By age 7, Nicholas had already undergone nine surgeries on account of a cilia-related disease that made it nearly impossible to naturally clear infections from his body. Doctors intended to remove his tonsils at age 6 — for the second time after they were removed when he was 18 months old but grew back. He had a bleeding issue following the original procedure, which raised a red flag for Jeanine Snyder, Andrew and Nicholas’ mother.

A mother’s intuition led to increased testing, which discovered Nicholas suffered from hemophilia, a rare disorder in which blood doesn’t clot normally because it lacks sufficient blood-clotting proteins, known as clotting factors.

The family couldn’t have realized it at the time, but it was a case of foreshadowing.

“When Andrew was in second grade, he sprained his ankle and we took him to the hospital and they said, ‘ Of course there’s no bleeding.” Jeanine said. “Long story short, he ended up in a cast and in physical therapy for six months because there was a bleed (internally). We really didn’t know what we were dealing with.’

Nicholas was no longer the only Snyder known to be living with hemophilia.

The brothers were considered mild hemophiliacs because they have minimal amounts of Factor VIII, the essential blood-clotting protein that allows the body to stop internal or external bleeding when an injury occurs.

When Andrew was in 7th grade at St. Mary Catholic School in Schwenksville, he experienced two bleeds within a week, ‘ which was rare for us,’ according to Jeanine Snyder.

A series of tests found the little amount of Factor VIII he had was under attack. He had developed an inhibitor.

“The product of Factor VIII is almost identical to the Factor VIII we make in our bodies, so when the inhibitor started to attack what the doctors were giving me it started to attack what my body was making and push my level almost to zero,’ said Andrew, who has become an expert on the subject.

Six days after learning of the inhibitor from doctors, on Christmas eve in 2011, a bleed began in Andrew’s elbow, which signaled the start of a painful string of bleeds and hospitalizations.

“Over the course of four months, Andrew was admitted to the hospital basically weekly for internal bleeding, many of which were spontaneous,’ Jeanine said. “He had bleeds in his calf, thighs, ankles, elbow, his kidney …’

“A couple places we’ve never heard of,’ Andrew chimed in.

What may be a small bruise or black-and-blue mark to others was anything but for Andrew. Any bleeding area would be inflamed and continue to swell, his body unable to stop the bleeding. It caused nerve damage, specifically to his foot, which caused him to be wheelchair-bound for a period of time.

“It was extremely painful when I was bleeding. Most of the time I didn’t want to tell my parents I was bleeding because I was scared I’d have to go to the hospital again, miss more school,’ he said.

The experience took its toll on Andrew physically and psychologically.

“He really was a different person. It knocked him down big time. It’s terrible to watch your kid suffer and be in pain and not be able to fix it. It’s a horrible feeling. I don’t ever want to feel that way again,’ Jeanine said through tears. “Just constantly in pain and feeling true, deep sadness because he couldn’t do what he loved most. He couldn’t go up the stairs in our house — he’s 13 and in seventh grade and in a wheelchair.’

Playing soccer, which he began doing at age 4 with West-Mont United, was out of the question.

He couldn’t play, but he could still watch, especially Messi.

“When I was home I would be watching Messi and Barcelona play. That would be one of the better times, where I was able to enjoy the sport while I can’t play it.’

Finally, after six months and having a port placed in his chest in April to administer the many doses of medication, Andrew caught a break in June — his body started to slow the bleeding.

A single hospital visit is cause for alarm for most, but single-digit visits was a victory in the eyes of the Snyders.

“Our frequency of visits to the hospital was seven times when he was in eighth grade so it was a huge improvement,’ Jeanine Snyder said.

The port remained in his chest until the following March, but by that time he was desperate to get back out on the soccer field.

Thanks to a special shirt created by his mother that had a football pad sewn into the chest to protect the port, Andrew could play again.

To this day — Andrew currently plays on the Harleysville Soccer Association travel team and was on the Pope John Paul II varsity team last fall — he must take precautions before every game. But he can play the game he loves, though the chance of a bleed is always there.

“I don’t have to get a needle before every game anymore, but I do have to pretreat,’ he said. “It’s a nasal spray, which will boost the Factor VIII in my body to 50 percent, instead of my normal 9 or 10. If I do get hurt, it’ll cover me for a little bit but most likely I’ll still have to go to the hospital.’

* * *

When he was admitted to Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia during the most difficult period, doctors had a proposition.

“The main doctor there told me I was eligible for Make-A-Wish after I had been in and out of the hospital for three months. Make-A-Wish called us and set up a meeting,’ Andrew Snyder said.

“The first wish I thought of was meeting Messi.’

For the uninitiated, Lionel Messi is considered the best soccer player in the world, a left-footed forward with a magnetic touch and jaw-dropping dribbling skills. A four-time Ballon d’Or winner (world Player of the Year), Messi, 27, recently broke the La Liga (Spain’s top division) record of 251 goals, which he has built to 266 with 23 goals so far this season.

A visit to Disney World it is not.

“The Make A Wish foundation gave him the courage to dream that big,’ Jeanine said. “Never in a million years did we think it would happen. They’re really remarkable people.’

* * *

As months go, Andrew Snyder will forever have a hard time topping last October.

While out to lunch with his mother, Jeanine got the call: Andrew was going to meet Messi.

In a trip entirely coordinated by the Make-A-Wish Foundation, the whole family was to fly to Barcelona at the end of the month, when Andrew would get to meet his hero and see him play.

It was impossible news to top, but it nearly happened when tests revealed no evidence of the inhibitor that had ravaged his health.

Riding that high, the Snyders arrived in Barcelona on Oct. 26, after being taken to the Philadelphia airport by limousine, just one of the surprises that would come their way.

“I was blown away. We got off the subway in the middle of the city of Barcelona and literally stopped in our tracks,’ Andrew said. “We couldn’t believe we were in Barcelona.’

The Snyders took in the beauty and artistry of the unmistakable city in the northeast of Spain. Andrew, who aspires to be an architect, was especially impacted by the immediately recognizable influence of architect Antoni Gaudi that is a major feature in Barcelona.

Two days shy of his 16th birthday, Andrew, his father Raymond, and 28 other Make-A-Wish children from around the world (ages 6-19) who chose meeting Messi as their wish — evidence of Messi’s global popularity — boarded a bus for an undisclosed location.

They arrived at Ciutat Esportiva Joan Gamper, FC Barcelona’s training ground.

“Once we all saw him our jaws dropped. To see him in person and that close was unreal. I have no idea how to describe the feeling I got when I saw him,’ Andrew said.

Starstruck would be a start.

“The lady from Make A Wish saw how unreal I thought he was and she came up to me and said, ‘ Don’t worry, you can touch him. He’s a real person.” Andrew said. “So of course I go in and I hug him and he hugged me back. Oh my gosh, it was a great, great three seconds.’

Snyder, who takes Italian at PJP, and the Spanish-speaking Messi do not share a language — a translator came in handy when Andrew asked a question during a Q&A session.

Yet the mutual love of soccer and the power of a warm embrace communicate more than any words can.

The same went for the pick-up soccer games Snyder played with his fellow Make-A-Wishers from around the world.

“It was remarkable,’ he said. “A lot of the little kids were really good. It was different seeing how American soccer is played versus Spanish soccer or English soccer, all over the world. We all play the game differently but it all has the same concept.’

They all want to play like FC Barcelona, which they got to witness in action in a match at Barca’s massive stadium, the Camp Nou.

“When we got there they told us, we have a surprise for you,’ Snyder said. “Right before the game we got to walk out on the field and see all the players up close as they walked onto the field.’

Then, the keepsake of a lifetime, a picture with the entire Barcelona starting XI before they took on Celta Vigo.

The same could be said for the entire trip.

“It was even better than I could have hoped for,’ Snyder said. “I thought I was just going to meet him and that was it, but they surprised us with so many other things. It was a trip I’ll never forget.’

Nor will all six Snyders.

“People have said to me, ‘ Oh my gosh, they sent all six of you? How could they send the whole family?” Jeanine said.

“It’s hard to explain, but (Andrew’s struggle was) a completely family-altering circumstance. The whole family is affected in so many ways and it was such a nice almost reward for everyone to be there with Andrew and witness his happiness, which was phenomenal.’

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