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Lauren Webster, University of Virginia student and volunteer paramedic, dies at 25

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Lauren Webster joined the Sterling Volunteer Rescue Squad at 18, and even after entering the University of Virginia, she returned every Friday to pull a 12-hour night shift as a paramedic with the group.

“She lived for that,” said Michael W. Tompkins, an Alexandria lawyer who volunteers with the Friday crew.

Tompkins recalled Lauren’s doggedness in advocating for her patients. Once, she and Tompkins responded to a call from an elderly woman who was bleeding profusely after a fall. Lauren convinced the on-call doctor that the woman required a diversion to Inova Fairfax Hospital’s trauma unit.

“Here is someone” in her early 20s, Tompkins said, “and she was explaining to a doctor why she disagreed with him.”

Lauren, 25, a Phi Beta Kappa student, was scheduled to graduate with honors today from the University of Virginia and start a job in two weeks at a National Institutes of Health genetics laboratory. Her new apartment in Bethesda was ready. Boxes of freshly ordered furnishings continue to arrive by mail at her mother’s home in Arlington County.

But Lauren suffered from depression, and it became increasingly severe in the past six months. She was found dead May 15 at a Fairfield Inn in Laurel. She had stopped responding to e-mails on Mother’s Day. Sharon Webster said that her daughter died of an apparent prescription drug overdose. The case remains under investigation by Maryland’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.

Lauren had completed her paramedic training at Northern Virginia Community College. When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in 2005, she went to Biloxi, Miss., to do relief work, first with AmeriCorps and later through Habitat for Humanity. During Mardi Gras in New Orleans, she saw a man drop to the ground and yell, “Help me!” When no one else responded, Lauren began administering CPR.

“I couldn’t let him die in front of me,” she told her mother.

Lauren’s experience in Mississippi, where she saw the consequences of debt, unemployment and poor medical care, inspired her to apply to the global development studies program at U-Va.

“Hearing the stories of families living on the coast taught me why some people suffered more than others, whether the crisis is a natural disaster or a medical emergency,” Lauren wrote in her application for the program. “These drastically different crises have one thing in common — poverty makes the prognosis for recovery far worse.”

While at U-Va., Lauren studied in Nicaragua and did research in an Appalachian region of Virginia about how clinics could improve health care through technology. “Although it was a group project,” a classmate wrote in an e-mail, “Lauren really was the core of the research and innovation.”

For her graduation thesis, Lauren wrote about first responders to emergencies including the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Her central question: What motivates people to act altruistically?

Lauren Hollis Webster was born Dec. 7, 1986, in Washington. As an elementary student at the Montessori School of Alexandria, she wrote plays for her fellow students, recalled a former teacher, Arlene Kowalski.

Lauren went to Burgundy Farm Country Day School in Alexandria, where she and her friends founded a Shakespeare club, and later attended Bard College at Simon’s Rock, a private school in Great Barrington, Mass.

Survivors include her parents, Sharon Webster of Arlington and Ronald Webster of Warner, Okla.; a brother, Adam Webster of Arlington; and her maternal grandparents, Norman and Marilyn Weizenbaum of Pittsburgh.

As an NIH intern last summer, Lauren did research on mitochondrial DNA. She was scheduled to return to work at the lab in June.

“She made a significant contribution to our research, but that wasn’t what impacted me the most,” her NIH mentor, Jahda Hill, wrote in an e-mail. “Lauren had tremendous compassion for others.”

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