It’s an instinct Nadia Popovici has worked hard to hone.
When, sitting behind the Canucks bench at a late fall Vancouver-Seattle NHL game, the incoming medical student from the state of Washington saw what she thought was skin cancer on the back of a man’s neck, she had to tell him what she had spotted. Years of volunteering at hospitals, including in an oncology ward, had her worried about the discoloured mole.
“I kept thinking about it throughout the game,” she said. “I thought even if he already knows about it, if it was me, I would want someone to tell me: Go see a doctor.”
She quickly typed up a message on her phone’s notes app, suggesting he get the mole looked at by a doctor, and tapped on the glass.
He didn’t seem to hear her, so she tried again.
At the time the man, who turned out to be the team’s assistant equipment manager Brian “Red” Hamilton, turned around, looked at the note on her phone, and nodded.
Popovici thought that was that. He must have known about the mole already.
It wasn’t. As it turned out, Hamilton took her message to heart, and got the mole Popovici saw checked out by his doctors, who told him that she had been right.
“That evening, Oct. 23, and the message you showed me on your cellphone will forever be etched into my brain and has made a true life-changing difference for me and my family,” Hamilton wrote in an open letter, which was posted to the team’s Twitter account in hopes of finding her.
“That mole on the back of my neck was a malignant melanoma and thanks to your persistence and the quick work of our doctors, it is now gone.”
He said that sharing the story was not intended to draw attention to his health.
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“It’s about an incredible person taking the time to notice something concerning and then finding a way to point it out during the chaos of a hockey game,” Hamilton wrote. “We are looking for this incredible person and we need you to share with your friends and families to help us find a real life hero, so I can express my sincerest gratitude.”
The open letter was shared around Twitter and social media, until it reached Popovici’s mom, Yukyung Nelson, who called her daughter right away.
“To wake up to this news — it’s so absolutely breathtaking. I’m so happy for him and his family,” Popovici said. “Sometimes it takes someone else, even a stranger, to give that extra push.”
“I think the biggest thing I want people to know is: Don’t take your health for granted,” she said. “You’re worth seeing a doctor for, you’re worth advocating for.”
On Saturday night, the pair managed to reunite ahead of a game in Seattle, according to the Canucks’ Twitter account.
“Brian and Nadia had an emotional meeting ahead of tonight’s game in Seattle,” the team tweeted, posting a photo of the two hugging.
A video clip tweeted by the Canucks shows the two of them chatting excitedly.
“My mom wants you to know she loves you, and my sister,” Hamilton says to her with a laugh.
“The way you wrote it on your phone, I told Jessica ‘I owe it to this person to get checked,’ ” he explains to Popovici in the video.
The Canucks Twitter account also had words for her: “Nadia, your kindness, compassion and the lengths you went to help another person is admirable. We already know you will make a great doctor upon your completion of medical school.”
Alex McKeen is a Vancouver-based reporter for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @alex_mckeen
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