At least a dozen human bodies that could have been used for scientific study or medical training have been sent for cremation while the Maryland Anatomy Board waits for state permission to hire an embalmer.
Board administrator Ronald Wade said the bodies had deteriorated too badly to be useful.
Wade was prevented from hiring a replacement embalmer because of the state freeze on hiring, imposed Aug. 31 due to what was then estimated to be a $150 million budget deficit.
"By not having the manpower to adequately treat the bodies shortly after their arrival, we have a lingering problem," Wade said. "As far as I'm concerned, it is a public health problem."
"We had about a dozen bodies we prepared for cremation only because we couldn't get to them in time to adequately prepare them to use in studies," he said.
The Anatomy Board is the state agency responsible for receiving unclaimed and donated bodies, and furnishing the state's medical and dental schools and hospital training programs with tissues and cadavers for study and training.
But, ever since the board's only remaining embalmer was stricken by a heart attack last month, the operation has been left in the hands of one man -- Wade -- who says he can't do it all alone.
The board receives an average of 65 corpses a month, and expects nearly 800 this year.
The state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene agreed two weeks ago to ask state Budget Secretary Charles Benton for an exemption from the freeze, designating it a request of the "highest priority."
The state did grant Wade permission to extend, until Oct. 16, the contract of a temporary secretary, hired in August to replace one who resigned. The original contract had been set to expire Oct. 2, which would have left Wade alone to answer phones as well as process bodies.
As state officials went back to work today after the Columbus Day holiday, Wade said, no permission had yet been granted to hire an embalmer.
"I'm hoping to hear from somebody [today]," Wade said.
In the meantime, the board's work has not come to a complete halt.
With three days of donated help from a Navy curator from the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Wade said, "we were able to prepare six or eight bodies for study . . . but we didn't really make a dent in what we have."
The curator also helped prepare for cremation bodies that were too far gone for embalming. "Even to prepare bodies for cremation takes more than one person," Wade said.
No further embalming assistance has been arranged, Wade said. "I'm going to do the best I can, with no help at this point."
The mortician contracted to transport bodies for the board also provided three employees to help Wade with the laborious handling of 36 prepared bodies that had to be transported to Johns Hopkins University, where they are to be used for study by first-year medical students.
Some training programs at the board's laboratory in the 600 block of E. Baltimore St. are continuing, but others have been canceled.
Wade says he is also seeking help to clean his lab. "This place is in the worst shape it's ever been, in terms of aseptic hygiene down here," he said.
Wade said officials in Illinois who read about Maryland's predicament called offering to take Maryland's surplus of bodies to help make up for a shortage in that state. Wade declined the offer because he said he would prefer to keep as many of the bodies as possible in Maryland.
He also has had to deal with the families of dead people who donated their bodies to science, and living people who had planned to.
"Two donors called up Friday to cancel their donation," Wade said.
A woman whose father had donated his body read of the board's problems and "called up to ask whether the donation would be honored. Fortunately, that case was one that was used for study in a surgical program," he said.
Another caller, a woman whose husband's body was held by the board, asked whether his remains would be used as he had intended.
"We told her we would try," Wade said.
Wade was advising other potential donors not to change their instructions immediately, but to "hold off, and give the state time to address the present need. I said I felt confident it would be addressed."
"I don't think we can afford to turn bodies away," he said. "Once we start turning donors away, we may not have enough to meet our teaching needs."