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Medicine grad finds match in soccer, service

Mikie Hayes | hayesmi@musc.edu | May 19, 2017

Frazier Kulze on a mountain
Photo provided
Graduating College of Medicine student Frazier Kulze in New Mexico on a trip after graduating from college.

There was a very good reason Frazier Kulze found himself clad only in boxer shorts on a dirt road in Haiti. Helping others, he realized, is the key to happiness.

That longing to help humanity would define his future — and in a very ironic way, it was all because of a pair of cleats.

Worn soccer cleats. 

And for Frazier, who is graduating from the College of Medicine, bound for a residency in anesthesiology at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C., this was the mission trip that changed everything.

Donald Wilbur, Ph.D., a family friend and referee evaluator for FIFA World Cup, had been involved in a service mission trip to Haiti for many years, bringing jerseys, shorts and balls to the people on the island. He invited Frazier, knowing his love of soccer.

It was 2012. They arrived in Port Au Prince — right after the devastating earthquake. “It was very humbling,” Frazier said. “There were refugee camps as far as the eye could see — just blue tents everywhere. There were dead bodies on the side of the road and people carrying on with their day like nothing’s wrong.”

They went to La Gonâve, an island off the coast of Haiti. Frazier described it as a giant mountain in the middle of the ocean. They would be doing service work, working with a priest who ran a commune in a coastal town that had many orphans.

It was a heart-wrenching several days. They visited an abandoned hospital to see if it could be turned into a medical clinic, but it was nothing but rubble. The people were just sitting in the middle of the floor, and the medicines from the 1980s had been expired for decades. “Patients had to bring their own beds,” he said. “The place had nothing. Nothing.”

But things began to look up when it was time for the trip to the mountains for the annual soccer game the entire island participates in.

They piled into a van with a group of children from the village and drove for seven hours on dirt roads pocked with ditches and littered with gigantic boulders. “We get there with the orphans, and literally, it’s the jungle,’ Frazier said. “There is a little church and courtyard, and everyone there is wearing their nicest clothes and singing and dancing as we pull up. The celebration is for us. They offer us a meal. It’s happiness personified.”

They had the jerseys for all the players. Much to his surprise, he heard someone yell, “Frazier — you’re on the team with us.” He was stoked.  

Suddenly, everyone disappeared into the jungle.

“I’m with all these orphans. We’re getting ready, and we’re all throwing on our jerseys, and I look down, and this guy is wearing the left cleat, because he’s left-footed, and the other guy is wearing the right cleat. They were sharing one pair of cleats.”

“We’re walking into the jungle, and there was a moment… These people have no idea who I am, and I can’t understand a word they’re saying, and they can’t understand a word I’m saying, but we were totally connected. It was all hugs and love — it was incredible.”

They walked through the jungle until they came to a clearing. 

Frazier Kulze, center, visits a hospital in Port Au Prince, Haiti, to determine if it can be used as a health clinic.

“It’s just red clay dirt, and these guys have crushed up white rocks to make the lines on the field. The goals are two bamboo posts with little prongs and a bamboo bar at the top. And we played.”

People from the village on the coast and people from the village in the mountain lined the sides of the field. “Dr. Wilbur whispered to me, ‘I always want this game to end in a tie — if possible.’” Frazier understood.

“We played our hearts out,” Frazier said. “I had an assist, and a guy headed it in. That was huge to them — and I was part of that. Fans started running on the field and grabbing me and kissing each other on the heads. It was the coolest thing in the world.”

The game ended in that tie, and they all started to get back into the truck. With camaraderie in his heart and beads of sweat running down his cheeks, something in him clicked.

“I thought to myself, ‘I don’t need this jersey.’ So I take it off and give it to this kid. He’s looking at it like it’s the greatest thing in the world; like I just gave him a jersey from Lionel Messi — the world’s greatest soccer player. He looked at me like this is the coolest thing ever.”

“I have my cleats on. I don’t need these cleats, either.”

He took off his cleats and handed them to one of the orphans.

“I give them to a kid, and he goes over to another kid — these are little 7- or 8-year-olds — and he gives him the other cleat.

“This was genuinely the moment when I said, ‘Yeah. This is what I want to do with my life. I want to be a doctor.’ It’s all worth it to help somebody.”

He wiped his cheeks, recalling that memory — realizing that no matter how much he gave to them, they gave him more.

“That just literally solidified things for me,” he said. “I thought to myself, ‘Hell yeah — I know what I’m doing with my life.’”

And with that he gave them his Crocs. And then his shorts.

“I am standing there in boxers. The happiness is — I flew back with nothing. I went back to my room and whatever I had in my bag, I gave to the kids. I flew back to the states in sandals, a T-shirt and shorts.”

And in the time it took to share his belongings, his life was forever changed. He would join, it seemed, a long line of doctors who preceded him.

Apple didn’t fall far from the tree
Donald Wilbur said Frazier is one of the most remarkable young men he’s ever known and comes by it naturally. He would know. Not only is he a patient of Frazier’s dad, John Kulze, M.D., he taught John while he was in medical school.

“Frazier’s whole family is full of compassion and kindness, and that’s exemplified in Frazier and everything he does. You can really see he is special. On La Gonâve, he was always playing with the kids and blended right in with them. They loved him. He’s going to be an extraordinary doctor, like his mom and dad.”

One of four siblings, Frazier comes from a particularly close-knit family — an MUSC family, he jokes. Along with his dad, his mom, maternal grandfather, and somewhere in the neighborhood of five great-uncles, one aunt, an uncle and four cousins all graduated from the MUSC College of Medicine, with another cousin following him up the ranks. Even his great-great-great-grandfather graduated from the COM, during the Civil War. It’s a legacy that leaves the lives of multiple generations inextricably intertwined.

Kulze plays soccer
Frazier Kulze prepares for the annual soccer game between the coastal and mountain vilagers.

Spending time with family — especially at Plum Hill Planation, their property in the Ace Basin — is his refuge. “It’s my heaven on Earth,” he said. “It’s where I spent every weekend as a child and still go as often as I can.”

It’s no wonder. The breathtaking expanse once was home to the majestic live oak under which young Forrest Gump and his friend Jenny sat in the movie of the same name. The rustic property, tucked away in the countryside of Yemasee, has provided many years of fun for Frazier, his siblings and 22 first cousins on his mother’s side.

He laughed when he described how the bunch of them would drive around in golf carts, pulling sleds piled high with kids, catching air on huge mounds of dirt.

Frazier described himself as a rough-and-tumble wild child who was up for any adventure. His mother, Ann Gregorie Kulze, M.D., laughed in agreement. “Yes. Frazier was my child who was always at full-throttle — he had boundless energy. He’s always been curious and into something. While he was still wearing diapers, he was the one who could make his way onto the dining room table and climb the chandelier.”

Today, he’s a strapping 6-feet-3-inches tall, still-energetic 27-year-old, and no worse for the wear. That, however, wasn’t always the case. He had a rough start — one so difficult, in fact, that his parents were told by the head of the hospital that there was an exceedingly high likelihood their newborn wouldn’t pull through.

The year was 1990, and John was finishing up his ophthalmology residency at MUSC. They had a 1-year-old daughter, and Ann was pregnant with Frazier, recently having completed her internship in internal medicine. John received orders to report to Ramstein Air Base, in southwestern Germany, where he would practice ophthalmology at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center — and Frazier would soon be born.

A complicated birth

At first, things seemed normal, his mother said. His Apgar scores were good, but when the nurses didn’t bring him back to the room and place him in her arms, she knew something was wrong. She was told the baby had breathing issues, but it was so much worse than that.

Frazier was born with a life-threatening condition called persistent fetal circulation (PFC), which made it impossible for the newborn to circulate oxygen, so he wasn’t getting nearly enough oxygen to his bloodstream.

For days, his life hung in the balance. A physician was with him 24 hours a day, and at multiple points, it took heroic measures to keep him alive. He was deteriorating quickly, and his parents were despondent. “Many times,” his mother said, remembering the ordeal like it was yesterday, “we thought we were going to lose him.”

He was rushed by Black Hawk helicopter to a hospital in Mannheim, Germany, which had advanced equipment and one of the world’s most esteemed neonatal intensivists, who happened to be the foremost expert on PFC. When Frazier responded to the decreased air pressure at the high altitude, his parents finally felt a sense of hope. He was then placed on a high-frequency jet ventilator; it was touch and go for the next 16 hours. Twice attempts failed, but the third time was the charm: He finally responded and stabilized.

Two months later he left the hospital at only 6 pounds — a pound and a half less than at birth. But by 9 months, he was walking as fast as his little legs would carry him. It was full steam ahead from there with no residual impact from the PFC.

Nurses had told his parents his life must have great purpose because he was one of the most tenacious little fighters they’d ever seen. “They said there must be some special reason he really wants to live,” Ann said.

Home sweet home
The family returned to Charleston and settled back into life, work and school in the Lowcountry. Sports came easily to Frazier. He excelled at soccer and basketball, playing school and club ball — many times juggling playoff tournaments for championship teams in both.

While grades and sports were important, his parents valued service, and early on, they involved their children in mission work in Central and South America, ultimately setting the stage for Frazier’s trip to Haiti.

Frazier got his first taste at 15, when the family went to Queretaro, Mexico. For a kid who grew up in Charleston, South Carolina, it was an eye-opening experience.

“You see these people who have absolutely nothing, and they are absolutely happy, and without it sounding like a cliche, it puts life in perspective,” he said.

He spent most of his time fitting people for glasses.

“It was the most gratifying thing. You take these glasses and put them on a 60-year-old man. He would literally cry and kiss you. That made me very hungry for more. There are moments in life where you just sit back and say to yourself — this is it — this is why we’re here.”

Frazier graduated from the scholastically challenging Academic Magnet High School and headed to Clemson University, where he initially declared English as his major.

Beyond his intellect and drive, it was that empathy Frazier felt for others and his ability to relate and connect so easily to people that stood out to his parents. “Those were the very qualities,” his mother said, “that we knew would make him an incredible doctor.”

Still, they never pushed him toward medicine. They wanted each of their children to follow their own paths. So they left it up to him, mentioning to him causally at one point that he might just want to consider it.

During his sophomore year, something deep inside him kept pointing in the direction of serving humanity in a special way.

“One day I just thought, ‘I want to try and go to med school,’ and I up and switched my major to health science.” 

Go West young man!
After graduation, he convinced his best friend to drive from Charleston to Alaska with him. It was an adventure he will never forget. They snowboarded. They fished. They met incredible people.

“It was the best year of my life. It was a year I knew I could never get back — so I wanted to go for it. It had always been my dream to get in my truck and go – just one of those free-spirited things. It was a wild and cool and incredible experience.” 

Kulze beside a waterfall
On his college graduation roadtrip from Charleston to Alaska, Kulze visits Oregon and admires one of the many waterfalls along the way.

When they returned, he applied early decision to the MUSC College of Medicine. He also decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and apply for an Army scholarship, which would cover all four years of his tuition. He was selected and will owe the Army four years after his residency. He’s not sure where he’ll end up, but that’s fine with him. Frazier loves to travel and his family and friends will tell you, he doesn’t know a stranger.

Frazier reports to Walter Reed on June 5. He knows he’s been blessed: from surviving a life-threatening condition at birth to traveling the world.

“We are a culmination of our experiences,” he said.

“That’s made me realize that people, especially physicians, in this day and age and crazy electronic world we live in, that we are totally plugged in all the time. Physicians can get totally detached from the idea that a person isn’t a lab value or number on a file. It’s a human being. I always take myself back to — this is a human being like me — who has all these experiences. I have to treat them as an end, in and of themselves. They are not a means to something else — they are human beings. Going forward — I have to always realize that. It’s the human factor that matters."


 
  

Editor's Note: MUSC is celebrating its 2017 graduates. 

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