Melissa Swain isn’t afraid to talk about death.
It’s a fact of her job at the King County Medical Examiner’s office, where Swain researches deaths tallied in Washington’s ongoing opioid crisis.
And it’s a reality she’s faced personally, when her husband Jared died by suicide in 2018.
But death is not something to be feared or ignored — it’s an element of the human experience that the Federal Way resident seeks every day, in some way, to make it a little less painful, a little less foreign, and a little more meaningful.
From her service in the U.S. Army to her recent award of the Live Your Dreams scholarship by the Federal Way Soroptimist club, Swain, 26, has focused on building a career in Public Health studying the nature of disease and illness while providing support and a keen eye for her colleagues.
She is passionately devoted to building her public health career, honoring her late husband’s memory and raising their son Jasper. That’s why she’s the Mirror’s Hometown Hero for February.
Swain earned her associate’s degree in lab science through her Army service, and after transitioning to the National Guard, she landed an internship at the King County Medical Examiner’s office in the summer of 2021. She also currently serves in the Washington National Guard in a Seattle-based medical support company.
Now pursuing a bachelor’s degree in biomedical sciences at the University of Washington Tacoma, Swain has taken an undergrad intern position tracking fatal overdoses for the medical examiner’s office.
That work is critical for a few reasons. The last five years have seen skyrocketing rates of deaths from overdosing in Washington state, especially from fentanyl. Opioid drug deaths per 100,000 soared from around 7.6 in 2003 to about 21.3 in 2021, according to research from the University of Washington. Methamphetamine deaths rose from 1.5 to 16 per 100,000 in that time.
Simultaneously, delays at the Washington state toxicology lab have caused long waits of months to even years for police and coroners to confirm causes of death — frustrating grieving families, criminal cases and insurance processes, which all need that official information. A new lab is expected to open this year in Federal Way to relieve some of the pressure.
In response, the King County Medical Examiner, which is part of King County Public Health, secured grants to do some of the work in-house.
That’s allowed Swain, at the medical examiner’s office, to put out weekly bulletins to police and public health on the number and nature of overdoses in King County. It’s not a topic everyone is comfortable thinking or talking about.
“I have a lot of sympathy and compassion for anyone who is not comfortable intervening or talking about it,” Swain said. “But we also kind of need to face the music and start being more compassionate toward others.”
Learning about the opioid epidemic, fentanyl and treatments like Narcan, which can often be obtained for free from public health offices, can help ease the anxiety or awkwardness that many feel when seeing or interacting with someone using on the street, Swain said.
That doesn’t mean you need to walk up and help everyone you see using on the street, Swain said. It means seeing them for the human beings they are, and doing a little bit when you can. Even Swain has had the experience of seeing someone smoking fentanyl, and thinking “there’s nothing I can do right now, but I don’t want to see this person at work tomorrow.”
“You don’t have to be a first responder, and you don’t even have to go intervene when you see someone using or overdosing in public, but you can go tell somebody,” Swain said.