Hometown Hero: Federal Way veteran, researcher isn’t deterred by death

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.


From a young age, Swain was interested in the science of the human body. By age 12 or so, she knew she wanted to pursue a career in medicine.

But that wasn’t a dream she could share openly. In her Utah Valley community, she was taught that her purpose was to be a wife, a mother and a homemaker.

“I was not really encouraged to pursue a career or educational dreams,” Swain said. “I really struggled with that. … I really enjoyed school and had dreams of going to college.”

Meeting her future husband Jared Swain helped her pursue those dreams. He was the ultimate hype man, Swain said, a vibrant guitar player, singer and chef who was “all in” on anything he put his mind to. When she doubted her goals, he was there to encourage her.

She married Jared at 18 and kickstarted her education by joining the Army, where Swain became a lab technician during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was a thrilling time to work in clinical and and research settings, and Swain found an interest specifically in the sociology of healthcare — “how people need healthcare, and how people respond to something like COVID,” she said.

It also opened her eyes to the disproportionate tolls that disease and health problems exact on veterans, people of color and other groups.

Jared would make her breakfast and lunch and drove her to work. When she became pregnant, he learned The Bradley Method of fatherhood he could be her birth coach — being almost “more involved in my pregnancy than I was,” Swain said. And helped her get in shape after delivery to stay in the service.

He was excited to be a stay-at-home dad for Jasper, a smart, creative kid who gets passionate just like his dad — whether that’s for running, Minecraft, chocolate milk or hanging out with his aunt.

In October 2018, Jared died by suicide.

It’s complicated to talk about, and there are well-meaning questions people have that can’t be answered, Swain said.

There are life events, like the couple’s ostracization from their religion or Jared’s best friend’s death from a heroin overdose, that Swain says she could point to and try to say “This is what caused it.”

“But ultimately, I can’t really answer that question,” she said. “And the way I’ve chosen to think about the last year and a half before his death … is Jasper’s life, when Jared was an incredible dad who spent all of his time nurturing and caring for, and loving our son.”

In honoring his memory, Swain decided to keep pursuing the dreams Jared helped her reach toward.

“I have found that I have a lot of love to give, and passions that I want to pour myself into,” Swain said. “… After Jared passed away, I didn’t love anything but my son. … That kept me alive for a while. … It saved me from a lot of unhealthy coping mechanisms, because I had to be present for him. I went all in on loving him, the way that Jared did. And he is the reason why we have rebuilt our life: Because I kept going for him.”


Ceanna Tolbert, a former forensic autopsy technician who used to work with Swain at the ME’s office, recalls how Swain helped her and her coworkers think about the work differently.

It’s the kind of job — like working as a first responder or social worker — that exposes one to the harsh realities of life, and it wasn’t unusual for Tolbert or her colleagues to cope with occasional gallows humor.

Swain didn’t judge or lecture them, but “she kind of stopped us in our tracks and made us question if that’s the best way to process what we’re going through,” Tolbert said. “We weren’t being disrespectful, but she made us feel like there were healthier outlets.”

And in the process, “I think she opened up a lot of doors in our eyes,” Tolbert said. “She really showed the incredible impact of our job … We’re bringing answers to families. … We’re not here just to do a day-to-day job.”

Swain’s perspective is informed by her own experience losing Jared. Laughing about her late husband in a way he would appreciate is one thing, and can be a way of honoring his memory.

“I told one of my friends I was worried about doing an interview, because I feel almost like I’m profiting off his death,” Swain said. “She said, ‘Well, he’s the kind of person that would absolutely want you to profit from his death!’ “

But gallows humor about strangers can risk dehumanizing the people and families you signed up to serve, many of whom are dealing with the devastating fallout of suicide, addiction and other diseases, she said.

So Swain tries to learn about how they lived rather than reducing them to how they died. And she brings lessons from her own grief to the work she does.

When Jared died, for instance, she wanted his belongings back from law enforcement. Families will ask for items back from their departed loved ones that don’t always make sense — but that’s part of the grieving process, Swain said.

“We do a lot of community outreach … and you really see the compassion from the people in our office when they talk to someone from a family (of a person who overdosed),” she said.

Swain’s graduation from the UW is scheduled for 2025, and making ends meet as a single-income household is no easy feat in this economy, even with her work income and Social Security. Scholarships and grants like the Soroptimist’s Live Your Dream award help fill the gaps.

“It’s a little bit more that I don’t have to worry (about), that maintains Jasper’s quality of life, and it gives me that boost of comfort, that there are … communities of people that believe in what I’m doing, that even though it’s financially kind of crazy, they’re helping me … and it’s doable,” she said. “Jared was my main hype guy, and that’s a void I don’t think will ever be filled. But when communities … give me that support, it reminds me of him.”

Soroptimist International is a nearly century-old volunteer service organization aimed at improving the lives of women and girls, especially in the fields of human rights and education.

The Live Your Dream award is dedicated to helping women who are the primary earners of their household. It is intended to help them grow their career skills or education and overcome any societal or financial obstacles in the way of their dreams.

Amid a period of high burnout and low staffing in the healthcare industry, Swain’s dedication to public health and experience helping people through the COVID-19 pandemic were among the traits that made her stand out, said Michelle Koven, secretary of the Federal Way Soroptimist.

“The fact she’s still dedicated (is) pretty impressive to me,” Koven said.

The award has multiple levels. By winning at the club level, Swain has earned a $1,000 scholarship. Women who win at the regional level can earn between $3,000 and $5,000. They then go on to the international competition, for which finalists can earn an additional $10,000.

Women and girls can learn more about the local Soroptimist chapter at their 6 p.m. meetings on the second and fourth Thursdays of each month at New Peking Wok, located at 32921 1st Ave. S. They can also email the club at sifederalwaycontact@gmail.com. The local branch frequently holds food rives, clothing swaps and other local events.

This is the first time local Soroptimist club has granted the award in three years, and they’re excited to grant it again next year, Federal Way Soroptimist Vice President Amanda Miller said. Women can apply for for the 2024 Live Your Dream award from August through November.

Melissa Swain poses for a picture at the University of Washington Tacoma, where she takes classes, on the afternoon of Feb. 22. Alex Bruell / The Mirror

Melissa Swain poses for a picture at the University of Washington Tacoma, where she takes classes, on the afternoon of Feb. 22. Alex Bruell / The Mirror