EASTON -- The state medical examiner has found traces of morphine in the remains of a 91-year-old Eastern Shore woman whose body was exhumed last week to determine whether she was given a lethal dose of a powerful painkiller at a Worcester County nursing home.
According to a preliminary autopsy report released by the medical examiner's office in Baltimore and made public yesterday, toxicological tests revealed an undisclosed level of the drug in tissue samples taken from the body of Maidie Lang Shay. She died Jan. 29 at Hartley Hall Nursing Home in Pocomoke City.
The autopsy report is not expected to be completed for several days, and authorities were unwilling to say if the drug had killed the woman.
"Whether it was a lethal dose that contributed to or caused her death, we are not prepared to say," said Maryland State Police spokesman Chuck Jackson.
Nevertheless, state police in Berlin who were investigating the discovery of an unauthorized bottle of the morphine-based drug Roxanol at the nursing home immediately turned over their findings to the Worcester County state's attorney's office.
Hartley Hall administrators found a partly empty, 1-ounce bottle of Roxanol in an office at the nursing home Feb. 6 after they got a tip that the drug was being stored improperly.
Suspicions arose that Mrs. Shay, who was terminally ill but not in pain, may have been the victim of a mercy killing by a nursing-home employee.
Nursing-home administrators began their own investigation and placed the home's nursing director and three other employees on administrative leave.
Karen Alpaugh, the Hartley Hall nursing director, subsequently resigned of her own accord, according to Louis Huber, president of Housing and Health Services Inc., the Baltimore firm that manages Harley Hall.
The investigation was channeled through state health agencies to the state police. Mrs. Shay's remains were exhumed because she was the only nursing-home patient to have died since the Roxanol was found.
No charges have been filed, and Worcester County Deputy State's Attorney Joel J. Todd yesterday refused to say if investigators were focusing on a suspect.
Mrs. Alpaugh, a Princess Anne resident who has worked at similar nursing homes in the area, could not be reached for comment. She has retained a Salisbury lawyer.
Mr. Todd said it could take up to three weeks for his office to decide how to proceed with the investigation.
Hartley Hall was opened in 1953.