Nadia Popovici is named after fellow Musial honoree Nadia Comaneci. But this year’s recipient offers her own take on Nadia’s theme. Trusting her training and instincts, Nadia’s quick thinking saved a life. It just took a while to figure that out.
A transplanted Vancouverite living in Seattle, Nadia had front-row seats for the Kraken’s 2021 home opener against the Canucks. She was so close that she could see Canucks assistant equipment manager Brian Hamilton as he worked behind the bench. A pre-med major, Nadia noticed a mole on the back of his neck that she suspected was cancer.
Should she let him know? If so, how? Casting doubts aside, she opened her Instagram app and typed in large, multi-colored letters, “The mole on the back of your neck is possibly cancerous. Please go see a doctor!”
Equipment guys are the busiest men on the bench, but Brian glanced up long enough to see the message. “I wondered who she was talking to,” he says. The message stuck, though, because she used that large font − and because Brian has lost two siblings, a niece, and his father to cancer.
Nadia couldn’t focus on the rest of the game. “My first reaction was that I shouldn’t have said that. I embarrassed him,” she says.
Brian, too was uneasy, so he asked his partner, Jess, to take a look. She agreed that because of the mole’s irregular shape, he should show it to one of the team physicians. The doctor agreed; the growth was removed and weeks later diagnosed as malignant melanoma. He returned to a plastic surgeon, who removed more tissue, and finally received word December 22 that the second sample was clear of cancer. A relieved Brian wanted to thank the stranger who saved his life. But how?
In those two months, Nadia wondered often if her message had gotten through. And if not, “I thought about the next game and maybe I’d see him again and make things more obvious or get a second chance.”
The next Canucks game in Seattle was New Year’s Day, the perfect time for Brian to find his guardian angel. He wrote a note that the team posted on its social media accounts:
“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.”
The message received 10 million impressions; a typical team post receives about 100,000. When Nadia’s mom learned about the message, she woke Nadia up after an overnight shift on a suicide prevention hotline.
“My first reaction was that I was amazed I got it right,” she says. “Then I cried with my mom.” The teams hastily arranged an event so the two could meet, which left Brian and Nadia little time to plan what they would say.
“So often when people perform a random act of kindness, you don’t get a chance to thank them. I just wanted to say thank you,” Brian says. “We were masked and you can’t see our faces and it’s chaos with the cameras and everybody wanting to capture the moment. But being Nadia, she calmed the whole room by saying thank you first. She thanked ME for following up.”
The Canucks and Kraken also surprised Nadia with a gift of $10,000 to use for medical school tuition at the University of Washington. “I’m still in disbelief about how many lives this has affected for the positive,” says Nadia, who completed a research fellowship in dermatology last spring. “I still get messages from people saying that the story inspired them to go to the doctor, who found something and removed it. To have that effect on people is why I chose medicine.”
Brian thinks the story also grabs people because, “It’s a positive use of social media. It’s a positive interaction between two strangers. And the world needed to be reminded that there are Nadias out there.”
Nadia has found her voice and makes a habit of trusting her instincts. She recently appeared in a video with her fellow medical students to advocate for easing the regulations for hospital residents. “If I’m concerned about someone, I want to be the person to reach out,” she says. “Even if they take things the wrong way, I tried my best.”