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Simon Fraser


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Wife’s harrowing pregnancy drew former Brown to medicine
By Andrew Gribble
COLUMBUS -- Simon Fraser refused to Google. WebMD wasn’t bookmarked on his laptop, either.
The “plethora of horrific news” that came up whenever he researched what could happen to his then-unborn twins was too much to stomach. The former Brown and national champion defensive lineman at Ohio State knew only one way to quench the unending curiosity that mixed with the anxiety, fear and hope that was already swirling in his brain.
“I went to the horse's mouth,” Fraser said.
“The second we found out that things were going bad, I just became infatuated with everything, and everything got put on hold.”
For months, Fraser, then a defensive end for the Atlanta Falcons, didn’t know how the birth of his children would end but he prepared himself for every possible circumstance. The doctors working closely with Fraser and his wife, Mallory, soon realized Fraser was not a “typical patient.”
And it had absolutely nothing to do with his NFL career.
About seven years since he last touched a science book at Ohio State, Fraser engrossed himself with all the potential causes and cures for the difficulties that forced Mallory to bed rest after just 10 weeks of gestation. When the twins were born three months early, each weighing less than 3 pounds, Fraser’s infatuation with the doctors’ game plan for saving his children grew even stronger. Doctors frequently questioned him, wondering, first, if he was already on the path toward becoming a physician and, second, why he wasn’t.
At some point, Fraser started to wonder it, too. Why couldn’t he, a four-year NFL veteran, fulfill something in his life that was clearly a passion?
After one particularly long night at the hospital, Fraser unveiled the plan to his wife. He would retire from professional football and enter medical school.
“She quickly turned to me and said, ‘we need some sleep, don't we,’” Fraser said. “That was kind of where everything changed for me.”
The first dose of adversity came when Fraser was on the practice field in the midst of his first and only season with the Atlanta Falcons. Something was wrong with Mallory, and he was needed in the emergency room right away.
The drive to the hospital was a blur. Fraser prayed for his wife and future children the entire way.
At just 10 weeks gestation, one of the twins’ amniotic sacs had burst and the child was developing without amniotic fluid, a core substance in the development of a fetus. Just a few weeks later, they learned the problem was even worse than expected. A routine ultrasound failed to pick up any heartbeat from the twin with no amniotic fluid.
The Frasers were crushed but had no choice but to regain their poise and push forward with a single birth. But later that day, at an appointment with a high-risk OBGYN, their spirits were collectively, yet cautiously, lifted.
The heartbeat was back.
“You kind of go into this state of fear because you don't really have much control,” Fraser said. “For your whole life, you get to control a lot of the things, especially being young. I never had to have an experience where I lost that ability to control. You really kind of felt helpless.
“Going undrafted, you felt like, ‘OK, I can work to make a team.’ Being in this situation, there's nothing you can do. It's up to God and the doctors to be able to treat my wife and be able to give her the proper care and see where life takes us.”
At just 26 weeks gestation, the twins had to come out. Both weighed fewer than 3 pounds, with Brynn, the twin who did not have amniotic fluid, at 1 pound, 7 ounces.
“We recognized we were meant to go through these things together to be where we are today.”
Twelve hours after the birth, the Frasers were summoned for what he could only describe as “not a happy visit.” Doctors were struggling to keep Brynn properly ventilated and time was running short. His next few hours would likely be his last.
Mallory and Simon were instructed to simply hold him in their arms and say their final goodbyes.
The moment was literally life-changing for all of them.
“He bounced right back up, oxygen saturation levels went up, his heart rate went up, his blood pressure went up,” Fraser said. “It was one of those moments we knew that things were going to be OK and we just had faith everything was going to move in the right direction for us.”
Six days later, Brynn underwent heart surgery. The next few weeks weren’t easy, as Brynn coped with severely underdeveloped lungs. When the phone rang, the Frasers’ hearts fluttered with anxiety. Would there be good or bad news on the other end of the line?
Ultimately, the good outweighed the bad and Brynn, like his sister Mia, was in the clear.
“For us, it was just a rocky road, but my wife and I look back on the situation realizing how close we grew together, how much we grew in our faith,” Fraser said. “We recognized we were meant to go through these things together to be where we are today.”
One dream trumped another when Fraser enrolled at Ohio State as an 18-year-old local kid from Upper Arlington.
Fraser had medical school ambitions when he became a Buckeye but football consumed too much of his time. He changed majors midway through his college career from biology to sociology and criminology and set his sights on the NFL after winning a national championship in 2002, earning three scholar-athlete selections and serving as the Buckeyes’ co-captain as a senior.
Fraser went undrafted but found a landing spot close to home in Cleveland. He made the roster and appeared in every game from 2005 to 2007. He started five on the defensive line but primarily made his presence felt on special teams. Some of his best friends on the team were kicker Phil Dawson, punter Dave Zastudil and long snapper Ryan Pontbriand.
“To be able to step out on the football field and wear the Browns jersey with the NFL shield on it was just a dream come true,” Fraser said. “The city itself was fantastic. Couldn't have asked for a better place to spend the majority of my playing career than Cleveland.”
Fraser’s playing time in Atlanta was sparse. He saw the field in five regular season games and the Falcons’ playoff loss at Arizona. He promptly retreated to Columbus with Mallory after the season, and everything changed.
Throughout the months leading up to the birth, Fraser would meet regularly with his physicians beyond what is typical with a patient in his family’s circumstances. The physicians appreciated his interest and reciprocated by letting him in meetings that would regularly be for only doctors. About two months after the twins were born, a physician approached Fraser about potentially pursuing a career in medicine.
“To be able to step out on the football field and wear the Browns jersey with the NFL shield on it was just a dream come true...”
The flame was reignited. Fraser knew what he wanted to do with the next chapter of his life. He just had to figure out how to do it.
“I told him, don't you have to go to medical school right after college?” Fraser said. “The last science book I ever touched was 2002. He told me it was never too late to start.”
There was one initial hangup: Fraser was still under contract with the Falcons.
As he prepared himself for the awkward conversation he expected to ensue when he would tell Falcons coach Mike Smith he was retiring to pursue a career in medicine, the phone rang. It was Smith, who let Fraser know he’d been released.
“Things always happen for a reason,” Fraser said. “You're meant to be where you're meant to be at the time you're meant to be there and I believe that's what led us to where we are today.”
Fraser spent the next year at Columbus State to fulfill the requisite coursework. He was accepted into Ohio University’s Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine in 2011.
Mike Aguilar had no idea about Fraser’s past. He just knew Fraser as a 6-foot-6 outgoing, friendly guy who never let a minute of the work week go to waste.
Aguilar isn’t much of a sports fan, and Fraser isn’t much of a talker -- at least when it pertains to his past achievements. It took Aguilar more than six months to figure out he’d been studying with a former NFL player.
“Somebody was like, ‘Do you know who that is?’ I was like, ‘yeah, that's Simon,’” Aguilar said. “He's definitely very humble about his background and all of that. I can maybe only remember one or two instances over four years where he brought it up. Most of the time it was people around him saying, ‘oh man, you played on the OSU championship team,’ or ‘you played on the Browns.’ He'd grin and get red in the face and smile. He never really brought that stuff up.”
For two years, Fraser locked himself into a routine that was based around maximizing productivity from Monday to Friday. With Mallory and the twins based in Columbus, Fraser would get in his car long before the sun rose Monday to make the one-hour, 20-minute drive to Athens and be at his desk before 8 a.m.
Outside of a meal or two and a workout, Fraser was all business from 8 a.m. to 1 a.m. He stayed connected to his family through FaceTime as he’d watch them eat and get ready for bed 80 miles from home. Throughout this process, Brynn was in and out of the hospital, as he endured and overcame a number of maladies that come with being born as premature as he was.
This was a different kind of pain than what Fraser experienced for years on the football field, but it was just as impactful.
“I think the hardest part was having those conversations with my wife on the phone after the day was done,” Fraser said. “I was taking a break from studying and she was getting ready to hit the sack and knowing there wasn't anything I could do physically to help her right now and knowing that she was just championing all that and taking on all that responsibility at home. I knew I had married a fantastic woman. I was grateful for all the sacrifices she made and allowed me to do what I was doing.”
And Fraser has done plenty, going beyond the already arduous workload of a typical medical school student.
In his second year, Fraser embraced a role as the president of the OU-HCOM Student Government Association. The role took him on trips to medical schools across the country and also made him into a mentor for both younger students and fellow, non-traditional students. When OU-HCOM’s class of 2016 was officially welcomed to the school, Fraser was one of the guest speakers.
Though Fraser shied away from flouting his status as a former NFL player, he had no issue serving as a different sort of role model in the second chapter of his professional life
“To give up a salary and the benefits you have as an employee, to actually start paying tuition to go to medical school, I think that's something that speaks volumes, the desire and passion they have to go into medicine,” said William Burke, the dean of OU-HCOM’s central Ohio campus in Dublin.
“Simon is a person people are naturally attracted to, such a positive person. He's enthusiastic and engaging. He's not one of those people who comes across as arrogant or cocky. How many people get a chance to play in the NFL or be a part of a national championship football team? But that's never been who Simon is. He doesn't take himself too seriously.”
Burke sees plenty of similarities between football and medicine, which he said has evolved into a “team sport” because of all the different people and skill sets that are applied to the care of each individual patient. The physician essentially serves as the quarterback.
Fraser stops short of making direct comparisons between the grind of the NFL and the grind of medical school, but the work ethic he’s applied to both remains unchanged.
“As an undrafted rookie free agent going through training camp knowing that every mistake is elevated higher than every member on the field, knowing you have to work harder in the weight room and work harder on the football field and always be on top of your game, that's kind of the way I handle my post-baccalaureate training and medical school training,” Fraser said. “Just making sure I always was out there doing everything above and beyond what I thought should be done to make sure I left everything out there.”
It’s a Wednesday in May and Fraser is home. Brynn is by his side and never strays too far from his father. The smile on his face never leaves.
As Fraser answers a series of questions from a chair in his living room, Brynn holds a microphone in his hand, pretending to be a reporter. When the interview ends, Brynn asks the questions he’d been thinking of for nearly an hour.
"Going undrafted really opened my eyes to knowing that football wasn't going to last forever..."
It isn’t every day a camera crew comes to Fraser’s home in Upper Arlington, but the time he gets with Brynn, Mia and the rest of his family is much more regular now that he isn’t trekking to Athens five days a week.
Fraser now makes the short drive to Columbus’ Doctors Hospital as part of his clinical rotations. Soon, he’ll begin his residency at the same place, where he’ll continue to hone his skills on the path toward becoming a physician. Though he was initially drawn to pediatrics, Fraser now has a passion for the operating room. He’ll start in general surgery and lock on a specialty in the coming years.
A plan that’s been years in the making is coming together just like the dream that temporarily delayed it.
“Going undrafted really opened my eyes to knowing that football wasn't going to last forever and I was always thinking about what I'd do next,” Fraser said. “Medicine kind of came into my life and brought me in with the experience of the twins but I think a lot of people are just excited for me knowing I've been able to accomplish this goal and am ready to support me moving forward.”
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