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Texas Embalmer: ‘We Get Bodies Out of ICU Regularly, but Not in the Condition That These COVID Bodies Are In’

Texas Embalmer: ‘We Get Bodies Out of ICU Regularly, but Not in the Condition That These COVID Bodies Are In’

As COVID-19’s body count continues to increase amid the surge in the Delta variant and among the unvaccinated, one embalmer in Texas has shared what life is like for himself and his team every day. And it is nothing short of gruesome carnage. Patrick Huey – the winner of the South Central Texas Funeral Directors Association’s first-ever Embalmer of the Year award in 2019 – chronicled the daily “nightmare” he encounters in an emotional essay published in Monday’s Huffington Post.

Photo by JUSTIN HAMEL/AFP/Getty Images

“It wasn’t until about late November or early December of last year when the surge really hit us in Texas, and then it was just awful. Just awful. We were pulling 22- and 36-hour shifts, and we were short-handed, to begin with. We went like that until about the middle of March. At that point about 65%, or maybe a little less, of the bodies we were receiving had COVID,” Huey wrote. “The death rate in general over the past few years has been unprecedented. The baby boomer generation has begun to die, and we are seeing more bodies than ever before. Add COVID to that and we’re reaching a breaking point.”

But the corpses that have inundated his morgue do not resemble a typical dead human being. Instead, Huey explained, the deceased arrive in various stages of horrific, dysmorphic rot:

They’re tremendously swollen. If they’ve been on a ventilator, that often completely runs down their immune system. It also opens them up to a lot of sepsis and secondary infections that tend to hang around hospitals, like penicillin-resistant staph infections.

These folks were so swollen they were completely unrecognizable. We were also getting sent a lot of people who had died from COVID in nursing homes back at that time, and many of them had not been dead very long at all. Generally when we embalm, we utilize a major artery to inject the embalming fluid and we use its adjoining vein for drainage. The blood tends to settle out because it’s no longer flowing and it’ll gravitate to the dependent part of the body. The longer a body sits, the more blood clots that they develop. I was having people that had only been dead for a few hours and there were major clotting issues. The clots were the size of pancakes ― you never, never see those with someone who didn’t die of COVID.

I’ve been doing this for 30 years and pretty much everywhere I’ve worked has been medium to high volume. I’m not one of those embalmers that works at a place that just does 50 or 60 bodies a year. So I’ve done this long enough and I’ve seen enough that I would know when something different pops up. COVID is unlike anything I’ve seen before. 

Many of the people who were in the ICU were on ventilators, and they put adhesive patches on their cheeks. They can easily become septic and they drip that septic saliva on the sides of their faces and the skin in that area gets infected. We were literally receiving bodies with huge lesions on their cheeks or [patches that had gone] gangrene. The sad part is the families of these people, at that point, hadn’t been allowed to see their loved ones during the several weeks that they were in the ICU. So the body comes out in an almost unrecognizable condition, and then you have to explain to their family that their loved one doesn’t look anything like what they should.

Despite the fact that I specialize in postmortem reconstruction ― accidents, trauma, stuff like that ― when the bodies are that swollen, there is very little I can do to eliminate that. And for a lot of these families, it’s just a tremendous shock. I’ve had husbands and wives die within days of each other. I’ve seen entire families wiped out. It’s horrible.

Even more jarring, Huey added, is the sheer volume of young people that are dying from the coronavirus. He noted that “85 percent of the people who are coming in right now passed from COVID. A lot of them are coming from the ICU. It’s not uncommon to get bodies from there, but what is uncommon is to get seven or eight or 10 bodies a day.”

Overworked, exhausted, and traumatized, Huey struggles to keep up with the unyielding accumulation of bodies, and he has been forced to store them in mobile Federal Emergency Management Agency freezer trailers.

Huey is also short-staffed, which impedes his office’s ability to keep up with the unending supply of cadavers. That, compounded by the fact that morticians and other funeral experts are getting infected after handling COVID victims, has pushed Huey to his breaking point:

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We are losing staff in places. A lot of new folks are graduating from mortuary school. They’re starting to work and are immediately slammed with COVID cases and they can’t handle it and and they wind up getting out. We’ve had a lot of funeral professionals who have gotten COVID, and there have been several I know of who have died from it.

The smaller, independent funeral homes, when they’re dealing with COVID, the next thing you know, their entire staff has it. And they pretty much have to take the phone off the hook, lock doors and shut down because they don’t have anybody to run the place. So, we’ve got a lot of embalmers who are traveling around from place to place, just trying to help out everybody who has shortages ― just to keep the doors open and keep serving the public.

In conclusion, Huey issued a plea for people to stop playing political games and get vaccinated.

“We’re just trying to do our part ― and we wish everyone else would do the same,” he said.

Huey’s full essay can be read here.

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