Maryland's Anatomy Board says hundreds of human bodies donated to science this year may go straight to a crematorium instead of to medical schools if the board can't get an exemption from the state's month-old hiring freeze.
The freeze, imposed by Gov. William Donald Schaefer Aug. 31 to cope with what was then a projected $150 million budget shortfall, has prevented the board from replacing an office secretary who resigned last month, and the board's embalmer, who had a heart attack two weeks ago.
That has left the board's work in the hands of just one man, its administrator, Ronald S. Wade.
Wade, who once had three embalmers working for him, told his board at an emergency meeting yesterday that the work -- processing nearly 800 bodies a year for use by doctors and teaching hospitals -- cannot be done by one person.
"I personally could not continue in that situation," he said.
He said he has already had to cancel several training programs for surgeons at the Shock-Trauma Unit in Baltimore and Johns Hopkins in the past two weeks because the cadavers couldn't be prepared in time.
And as bodies continue to arrive at 655 W. Baltimore St., at a rate of 65 a month, "we quickly may have a public health problem," he said.
In that event, said Michael N. Sheridan, the board's chairman, "As a cadaver comes in the door, it will simply be sent to the crematorium. It will be of no use to medical and dental education in the state."
Help may already be on the way.
Sheridan said he began last week asking officials in the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to seek exemptions to the hiring freeze so he could hire a temporary secretary and an embalmer.
Finally, yesterday morning, Sheridan received word that the DHMH would go to bat for the board and seek the exemptions from state Budget Secretary Charles L. Benton Jr., who has the last word.
Deputy Health Secretary Nelson J. Sabatini said he didn't get a written request for the exemption until yesterday morning. He said he would take the request to Benton's office today.
The board's predicament "is a very real problem," he said. "I told them [the Anatomy Board] we would move the request for exemption through very quickly, and support it. I'm confident they will get relief. Secretary Benton is a very reasonable person.
"On something of a critical nature like this, I'm sure it will be handled very expeditiously. . . . I would assume that they should be able to bring some people on board in a matter of days."
The Anatomy Board's members represent the medical schools, private doctors and hospitals that rely on the agency to provide cadavers, organs and tissues for training and education.
They began casting about yesterday for ways to patch the operation together with "spit and glue" in the event that Benton does not provide relief.
Several members suggested that Johns Hopkins, the University of Maryland and other schools that use the service could each donate employees on a part-time basis. All agreed the service was too important to be left begging for money and personnel every year.
Sheridan said the board has asked the health department's budget planners for additional office and technical personnel in each budget for the past three years, but has never succeeded in getting the request onto the budget proposal that the %J department submits to the governor.
"We have never gotten a high enough priority," said Wade. "We never even got an honorable mention."
Wade said the board received 743 bodies last year, up from perhaps 150 when he arrived on the job 17 years ago.
About 80 percent of the bodies are donated, reflecting a growing willingness by Marylanders to donate their bodies, tissues and organs to science.
About 250 of the bodies are embalmed for use in gross anatomy laboratories by first-year medical, dental and physical-therapy students at Hopkins, University and the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda. Many of the others are the sources of bones, eyes and other tissues used in transplants and other medical procedures.
Some bodies are preserved for medical researchers. Others are made available to doctors who want to practice surgical procedures or review anatomy.
"The alternative," Wade said, "is to make their mistakes on a living person."
But Wade's office has operated with a "diminished staff" for the past three years, coping as best it could with the body backlogs that developed each time an employee was absent or ill.
But "we have always tried to push the program along," he said. Wade has not had a vacation in a year and a half. He is owed 60 days and wonders what would happen if he took them now.
If the work of the Anatomy Board comes to a halt, Sheridan said, "every medically related program in Maryland will be severely jeopardized."
And the hundreds of Marylanders who have made known their desire to have their bodies donated to science after their deaths, he said, "won't have those wishes fulfilled. They will be sent directly to the crematorium, and their ashes will be buried . . . at Springfield State Hospital."