“It’s hard for me to sit back and not do something,” says Laura Newton, thinking back to her second year at the UW School of Law at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Given her background, there were many things she could do to help.

Having served as a U.S. Navy Lieutenant with a B.S. in nursing — and with nearly a decade of emergency room experience — Newton’s insatiable curiosity led her to law school. “I was trying to explore something completely different but also to go into something where I could use my medical background,” she says. “I’ve always been fascinated by the human body.”

Newton appreciated Medicolegal Day, a joint program designed to educate UW medical residents and law students about medical malpractice, which features UW Law professor Bill Bailey and UW Medicine clinical instructor Dr. Nicole Chicoine Mooney, J.D., M.D., herself a graduate of both the UW School of Law and the UW School of Medicine.

Newton also excelled in Professor Steve Calandrillo’s Topics in Law and Medicine course (LAW H 510), which focuses on legal, ethical and social aspects of regulation and oversight in access to medical treatments and technology. “I have no doubt she’ll go on to make a positive impact in the world after her UW law and medical careers are completed,” Calandrillo said.

While learning about medical malpractice and studying health law and ethics, Newton noticed something: “I was more interested in the medicine in the law cases than the law,” she says.

Early on, she had reached out to the Snohomish County Medical Examiner to see if she could rotate there during law school. Newton felt that serving the public by determining the cause and manner of death might be a good marriage of the medical and legal fields. She was set to begin when the pandemic hit and the opportunity stalled. That’s when a position opened up in King County for a medical-legal death investigator.

Soon, Newton was reviewing medical records with physicians, speaking to care providers and families, and trying to learn more about this new disease called COVID-19. “It seems like so long ago now,” she says. “We were testing people as quickly as possible, looking back to November and December 2019, trying to figure out how long COVID had been here, retroactively.” The job was difficult. She had to talk to people, freshly grieving, and ask them about testing their deceased loved ones.

Like Falling in Love

Still, Newton was up to the challenge and loved the science behind the work. Not too many would describe doing autopsies as Newton does. “It’s like falling in love,” she says. “Until I did that job in pathology, I didn’t know how fascinating it would be.”

Loving the job so much made her nervous, as if she were cheating on her committed relationship with law school. “You don’t know if you’ve met ‘the one’ until you do. After two years of law school, I felt like I’d met this new person,” she says. She took a leave of absence from school to continue her work during the pandemic.

She also used that time to figure things out. Since her nursing classes didn’t transfer, Newton made a two-year plan that involved completing her medical school prerequisites. After the need for COVID death investigation peaked, she transitioned into a forensic autopsy job as a student intern. Meanwhile, she completed the long process of applying to medical school and being accepted at the UW School of Medicine. Realizing that she didn’t have to give up on law school to pursue medicine, she also returned to the School of Law and completed her J.D.

Marrying it all Together

Reflecting on her journey, Newton talks about the early years of her career. Before transferring to emergency medicine, she was a nurse for wounded soldiers, many with blast injuries. She describes formative experiences and close friendships, not unlike those developed in her work during COVID-19 and after, and speaks of her appreciation for Dr. Nicole Yarid, the Associate Medical Examiner who mentored Newton during her internship.

There seems to be a theme in Newton’s life: doing challenging work in the community that makes life better, even when that work centers around trauma and death. She knows that some may find it hard to understand. “Many pathologists don’t deal with autopsy at all,” she says. “It’s almost weird to say that you like it. It doesn’t bother me and makes a big difference.”

Newton may ultimately pursue a different specialty, mindful of advice not to be closed off from other interests, but she also really enjoys what she’s already found and looks forward to seeing how her J.D. will help take this work further.

This application of legal training could include using persuasive writing skills, data and insights to influence policy. “In addition to pathologies, it’s about the way cars, cribs and children’s toys are made, or how the citizens of King County have been affected by fentanyl or increased violence,” she says. “There are so many populations you can impact in the medical examiner’s office, and the whole job is to help prevent deaths in the living.”