Nadia Popovici hadn’t woken up yet when what she had done to save a life was going viral on hockey Twitter.
A 2019 University of Washington graduate about to go to medical school, she worked at a crisis hotline overnight on New Year’s Eve. It was a shock to find out upon waking she had become a story.
“I woke up with my mom’s phone call and she was like, ‘Nadia, you have no idea what’s going on,'” she said. “She sent me the statement the (Canucks) put out, and it said they were looking for me. There was a lot of screaming. I couldn’t believe it.”
Popovici, who goes to Kraken games with her stepfather’s season tickets, was the subject of a search from Canucks assistant equipment manager Brian “Red” Hamilton, who said Saturday morning via a Twitter statement from the team Popovici had saved his life.
When the Canucks were at Climate Pledge Arena on Oct. 23, the Kraken’s home opener, Popovici — sitting behind the Canucks bench — typed a message out on her phone, knocked on the plexiglass and got Hamilton’s attention. “The mole on the back of your neck is cancer,” the message read.
Within two hours of the Twitter statement, she had been identified via a Kraken fan Facebook group. She just didn’t know it yet.
As soon as she woke up into 2022 for the first time, though, it was apparent her start to the year was already pretty meaningful.
“He kind of glanced at my phone and walked away and I thought maybe he’d already seen it,” she said. “Maybe he’d already gotten it checked out by a doctor, it’s probably fine. Then for this to happen months later, to hear he had possibly five years before showing debilitating symptoms. I mean, that’s, it’s just so incredible that I’ve had the opportunity to reach him at that moment.”
It turned out the mole was type-2 malignant melanoma, which means it hadn’t penetrated the skin yet. It’s a form of skin cancer that develops pigment-producing cells known as melanocytes.
Popovici said in her time volunteering at hospitals she’s been “surrounded with a lot of melanomas,” so when she saw it on his neck with a large diameter, discolored, raised and with an “irregular border” it raised some red flags in her mind.
“She extended my life,” said Hamilton in a Zoom press conference on Saturday afternoon. “I’ve got a wonderful family, I’ve got a wonderful daughter and I just think like, she extended my life. She didn’t take me out of a burning car like the big stories but she took me out of a slow fire, and then words out of the doctor’s mouth where if I ignored that for four to five years, I wouldn’t be here.
“When I went back out on the bench (Saturday) I felt a little emotional and looking at the glass and trying to figure out exactly where she was on the glass.”
She wasn’t sure how her message would be received, and especially months later, that Hamilton would take it so seriously.
That was one of the reasons for his statement, he said, other than to find her, but to let her know that he did take it seriously.
“I acknowledge that it’s so uncomfortable to have something on your body pointed out and so I didn’t want to make him feel uncomfortable,” said Popovici. “So I kind of caught him in a moment where everyone was leaving and there was no one behind him and showed him my phone and I’m so happy that I did and I’m so grateful to his wife or father encouraging him to go get checked out.”
Popovici, who is Canadian-American, said she’s been enjoying going to Kraken games. Brandon Tanev is her favorite player — “I’m so sad he tore his ACL!” — and going to games with her mom has been a special experience this season.
Popovici and her mom had talked a few times since that opening game about Hamilton, wondering how he was doing and whether he had the mole checked out, but she never expected she would hear anything about it again, especially months later.
Hamilton said Popovici made her presence known and impossible to ignore even in a crowd, where it would have been easy to miss a spectator trying to show a message.
He was most grateful for that effort on her part, even though in the moment, he wasn’t sure how to address it.
“She had her phone pressed up against the glass and the thing that really registered in my mind is it wasn’t like text, she had gone to more effort to make the font bigger and colorful,” he said. “So it got my attention and and so I saw the message but I looked at her and I was like ‘OK,’ and then I just kept walking. I’m sure if there’s footage as I’m walking down the bench, like I’m rubbing the back of my neck because I didn’t even know.”
The persistence also caught the attention of her mother, who shares season tickets with Popovici behind the opposing bench.
“My response when she noticed it was, ‘Really?’ ” said Popovici’s mother, Yukyung Nelson, who had been a Canucks fan before the Kraken came along. ” ‘How did you even notice that?’
“We are all in complete shock.”
After the Canucks flew home, Hamilton asked his wife if he had a mole on his neck. From there, he spoke to the team doctor, Dr. Jim Bovard, who cut it out and sent it for a biopsy. Upon learning it was cancerous, they removed a bigger part of it and all tests have come back negative since.
Hamilton and Popovici were set to meet for the first time ahead of the Canucks-Kraken game on Saturday night. Popovici was excited for the opportunity to hear more about Hamilton’s journey, something she, like everyone else, only found out about hours before the game.
“I am hoping to thank his wife again,” said Popovici. “Whether that’s just verbally through him, just thank her for encouraging him to go and then taking a second look, I feel like it’s so many times it’s the people in our lives that love us that push us to make these decisions. And so I’m hoping that I can thank her. I’m just, I’m so grateful that this is happening.”
For Hamilton, he wanted to express gratitude as well. During his presser he said he wanted to “tell her his mom loves her” and, most of all, thank her.
“She needs to know, she’s the story, she’s the person who did this,” said Hamilton. “She needs to know her efforts were valid and bang-on.”
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to reflect that one sign of a melanoma mole is an “irregular border,” not a “regular border,” as originally reported.