Gloria Ramirez was a 31-year-old woman suffering from advanced cancer. Though there was nothing unusual about her except for being too young, the incident that followed her admittance to the emergency room baffled the doctors and researchers. Dubbed “the toxic lady”, the hospital staff who were exposed to her body became ill and even had to be hospitalized. It was so bizarre that it inspired episodes in many TV shows, including The X-Files, Grey’s Anatomy, The New Detectives, and Law & Order. Here are the details about the mystery of Gloria Ramirez and all the pandemonium that ensued.
At around 8.15 PM on February 19, 1994, Gloria Ramirez was admitted to the emergency room of Riverside General Hospital, southern California, as she was suffering from adverse effects of advanced cervical cancer.
By the time she got to the emergency room, she was in a confused state and already suffering from abnormal heart rate and breathing. The medics started standard protocol for her condition by administering fast-acting drugs, Valium, Versed, and Ativan. Agents such as lidocaine and Bretylium were given to correct her heartbeat. When it became clear to them that she wasn’t responding, they tried to defibrillate her. They also noticed an oily sheen on her chest and a fruity, garlic-like odor which they thought was coming from her mouth.
When they tried to draw blood from her arm, they noticed an ammonia-like smell coming from the tube and manila-colored particles in her blood. Shortly after that, three of the medics began feeling sick and fainted one after the other. A total of 23 staff became sick after exposure, and 5 were hospitalized.
It was a registered nurse, Susan Kane, who drew blood and noticed the smell as the syringe filled. She fainted after handing the syringe to a medical resident, Julie Gorchynski, and was taken out of the room. After that, Gorchynski felt nauseated and lightheaded, she left to a nurse’s desk, and there she fainted too. Next to faint was a respiratory therapist, Maureen Welch, who was trying to keep Ramirez breathing with bag valve mask.
Following that, several other people, including staff, started saying they felt ill and the staff was ordered to evacuate the emergency room to the hospital’s parking lot. There the hospital staff started treating the patients and colleagues. The clothes of whoever could have been exposed were removed into plastic bags. A bare minimum of staff remained to stabilize Gloria Ramirez. At 8.50 PM, after 45 minutes of CPR and defibrillation, she was pronounced dead due to kidney failure.
The medical resident, Gorchynski, was affected the worst. She suffered from tremors, apnea, hepatitis, pancreatitis, and avascular necrosis in her knees, a condition in which the bone tissue doesn’t get enough blood and starts to die.
Gorchynski had to spend two weeks in intensive care and use crutches for two months. Susan Kane’s symptoms were flailing limbs and rise in body temperature. A nurse, Sally Balderas, who went back inside to help shift Ramirez into the isolation room started retching and felt a burning sensation on her skin. Soon her situation got worse and had to be laid out on a gurney. At around 11 PM, a hazardous materials team from Riverside County arrived and started looking for known volatile toxins, including hydrogen sulfide, but found none. Then came the pathologists from Riverside Coroner’s Office who took samples of blood, tissue, and air from the body bag and aluminum crate in which Ramirez’s body was held.
The autopsy continued for several days, and several hypotheses were put forward. One plausible explanation was that Gloria Ramirez could have used dimethyl sulfoxide (DMSO) as a home remedy for pain, which built up due to kidney failure, then converted to DMSO2 when the medics administered oxygen and again during defibrillation converted to DMSO4, a powerful poisonous gas.
The Riverside’s Coroner’s Office gave the investigation work to Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, who came up with the DMSO hypothesis. DMSO is a solvent used as a powerful degreaser and sometimes as a home remedy for pain. It is sold in gel form at hardware stores and said to have a garlic-like smell, which explains the odor and greasiness of her chest. In DMSO2 form, it is known to crystallize at room temperature, which could explain the manila-colored crystals the blood that was drawn from her body (at 98.6 0F) and into the syringe (at room temperature, 64 0F).
Finally, the electric shocks during defibrillation could have converted DMSO2 to DMSO4, exposure to which could have caused the symptoms among those who were in the vicinity. Though other theories were proposed, including mass hysteria, the Coroner’s Office concluded Livermore’s explanation more probable.