Alumni Reflections: Creating my own path to medicine

Written by Justine Newman

When I was in the 7th grade, a coroner came to school for career day. While I don’t remember anything that he said specifically, the impact that he had on my life has been unparalleled. It’s been about 13 years since that interaction—five of which were spent at Northeastern and, so far, three of which have been spent in a dual MD/JD program at Southern Illinois University—but everything that I do is because of that day in 2008.

After enjoying my science courses in high school, I took my dream of becoming a forensic pathologist to Northeastern, but I still had no experience in death investigation. I’d never seen a dead body, let alone smelled one. That’s where co-op came in. There are no coroner co-ops in the co-op database. Not even one! But my co-op advisor knew that I needed to experience the trenches of death investigation to decide if pre-med and forensics were the right paths for me. With her help, I developed my own co-op . . . at the same coroner’s office that the man from career day was from. All these years later, I’m still impressed that we pulled that off.

For eight months, I worked alongside the investigators, pathologists, autopsy technicians, and the coroner. I went out to death scenes, became crime scene photography certified, and even helped to recover skeletal remains from a ditch on the side of the road. I loved every second of it and I knew that forensic pathology was the right calling for me. Something didn’t sit right though. During my time there, I learned that the coroner was an elected position. I saw the potential for local politics to seep into the morgue and onto the death certificate. I realized that, even though our coroner was a physician, there were no educational requirements (in my state) for a coroner other than a high school diploma.

From my health science background though, I knew that death investigation and death certificates were the most important sources of mortality data. The health of individuals, small communities, and large cities relies on the public health data extracted from death certificates. The importance of death certificates cannot be understated.

Coroners are controlled entirely by state law. Whether a jurisdiction has a coroner or medical examiner is dictated by state law. What categories of deaths require investigation, toxicology testing, or autopsy are ordered by state law. I found this intersection of law and medicine to be fascinating—and ripe for improvement. With this new knowledge, I vowed that I would do something to advance the system. In addition to performing autopsies, I wanted to become an advocate for death investigation reform. That’s what took me down to the pre-law office to figure out how I could do it. With much contemplation (and a lot of people thinking I was crazy), I decided that being a lawyer and a doctor would allow me to accomplish those dreams.

After graduating in 2020, I began a dual MD/JD degree program at Southern Illinois University, the most robust MD/JD program in the country. This past May, I finished the law portion of my dual degree. Law school taught me how to read statutes, interpret each word of a law, and ascertain legislative intent through a bill’s history. But more importantly, law school taught me that systems are amendable (with enough work), and I am equipped with the skills for advocation.

Attaining two degrees is always longer, harder, and more expensive than one. But my law degree is invaluable. My ability to translate between two distinct professions is priceless. My nuanced understanding of the give-and-take between public health and the law is critical for helping to improve the lives of others. I am proud to bring this experience with me to medical school this fall. So, tell your friends that the coroner is elected, and to anyone interested in the intersection between law and medicine, consider an MD/JD.