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A hockey fan spotted a staffer's suspicious mole from the stands, saving his life

Ted S. Warren, AP
Seattle Kraken fan Nadia Popovici, center, looks toward Vancouver Canucks assistant equipment manager Brian "Red" Hamilton, left, at the end of an NHL hockey game in Seattle on Saturday. Popovici had written Hamilton a note months earlier urging him to see a doctor about a suspicious mole, which turned out to be cancerous.

An NHL staffer had a cancerous mole removed after a fan of the opposing team spotted it from the stands and urged him to get it checked out. He now credits her with saving his life, and the teams are awarding her a scholarship for medical school this fall.

It all began on Oct. 23, at the Seattle Kraken's first-ever home game against the Vancouver Canucks, according to the league. Brian "Red" Hamilton, an assistant equipment manager for the Canucks, was clearing off the bench when a young woman seated nearby noticed a suspicious mole on the back of his neck.

Kraken fan and Tacoma resident Nadia Popovici, 22, recognized the irregular mole from her time volunteering in hospitals (the 2019 University of Washington graduate plans to start medical school this fall). Wanting to warn Hamilton but wary of making him uncomfortable, she typed a note in large font on her phone and pressed it against the glass: "The mole on the back of your neck is possibly cancerous. Please go see a doctor!"

While Hamilton later said he initially "didn't give her the time of day," he asked his wife to take a look the next morning and she noted its weird shape. The team physician also didn't like the look of the mole, and removed it within days. A biopsy revealed malignant melanoma in situ 2, meaning the cancer was only on the outer layer of the skin — and was detected before it could become even more dangerous.

"She didn't take me out of a burning car like the big stories, but she took me out of a slow fire. And the words out of the doctor's mouth were, if I ignored that for four to five years I wouldn't be here," he said at a press conference on Saturday.

Hamilton wanted to thank the person who had set the chain of events in motion, but didn't know her identity. So the Canucks posted a call-out on social media on Saturday, asking hockey fans to help Hamilton connect with "the woman he considers his hero."

"That evening, Oct. 23, and the message you showed me on your cell phone will forever be etched into my brain and has made a true life-changing difference for me and my family," Hamilton's letter reads. "Your instincts were right and 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 added that the focus shouldn't be on him, but instead the "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 note took off on social media, but Popovici didn't immediately notice — the NHL says she was napping after her overnight volunteer shift on a suicide hotline. Her mom saw the post in a fan Facebook group and made the connection.

Popovici — who goes to Kraken games with her stepfather's season tickets, according to theSeattle Times — had already been planning on attending Saturday night's game. But it was no ordinary hockey match.

Hamilton and Popovici met up beforehand for an emotional reunion.

Video footage shared to Twitter shows them hugging and chatting about their journey, from Popovici's original discovery of the mole to Hamilton's far-reaching efforts to find her.

Popovici admitted that she was nervous to bring it up, and tried to catch Hamilton's attention at a moment when there weren't many onlookers. He told her that he was caught off guard by her note but moved by her persistence, and felt he owed it to her to act on it and get the mole checked out.

They also thanked each other profusely. Hamilton thanked Popovici for her life-changing efforts, and Popovici thanked his wife for taking a look and encouraging him to take it seriously.

Popovici also said she's been accepted to several medical schools and will start school in the fall, calling this experience a "pretty priceless" way to kick off that journey.

The NHL, however, did put a price tag on her heroism. The Krakens and Canucks partnered to award her a $10,000 scholarship, which they announced during the game as Popovici's stunned reaction was captured on camera.

As NHL.com has reported, Hamilton was especially shocked that Popovici had managed to even see the mole, since he was wearing a jacket with a radio attached to the back.

But you don't have to be a future medical student to spot melanoma, which is a serious form of skin cancer.

Experts say you should look for these features: asymmetry, border irregularity, color changes, diameter greater than 1/4 inch and evolving (or ABCDE). And here's more from NPR on how to apply sunscreen for maximum protection.

This story originally appeared on the Morning Edition live blog.
Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.