A few years ago, Gloria Ramirez was nicknamed “The Toxic Lady” by the media. And for good reason, several members of the medical staff fell ill after being exposed to his body. His case is one of the most mysterious in recent decades.
An evening like no other
It is February 19, 1994. At around 8:15 pm, Gloria Ramirez, 31 and a mother of two, is suffering from the symptoms of her advanced cervical cancer. She was taken directly to the Riverside emergency room, received by medical personnel who administered sedatives. Noting that the patient reacted badly (cardiac arrest), the team then attempted defibrillation.
Suddenly, some people notice a strange smell, similar to that of garlic. The patient’s body is also oily. A nurse, Susan Kane, then smells like ammonia as she performs a venipuncture. Then she notices, inside the syringe, brown particles floating in the blood. Nausea, she passed out before being evacuated. She will soon be joined by her intern Julie Gorchynski, and Maureen Welsh, a respiratory therapist.
They are not the only ones. According to the edition of New York Times released the next day, six hospital staff were hospitalized after suffering from muscle spasms and seizures. Discover the magazine later reported, in 1995, that 23 of 37 emergency room staff had experienced at least one symptom.
From then on, the medical staff ordered the evacuation of emergency patients in the parking lot. A handful of doctors remain with the patient, hoping to be able to stabilize her. Gloria Ramirez finally dies a few minutes later. A coroner’s report published at the end of April 1994 will reveal that she died of kidney failure caused by her cervical cancer.
In the meantime, Gloria Ramirez had been dubbed the “Toxic Lady” by the media. But what happened with the medical staff, exactly?
Time for assumptions
Shortly after the incident, Drs Maria Osorio and Kirsten Waller are chosen to investigate. They questioned members of the hospital who worked in the emergency room on February 19, and found that the people who developed the most serious symptoms were those who worked within a meter of the patient.
The first media reports then suggest that nurses and doctors were victims of noxious fumes emitted by Gloria Ramirez’s body, including mention of organophosphate poisoning. It is a class of chemicals used in both pesticides and chemical weapons. Later, autopsies of the patient’s body and other investigations in the hospital will not reveal any organophosphates.
Some then suspect that it could be an unusual case of mass hysteria, a phenomenon in which groups experience similar psychological or physical symptoms in response to a threat, real or not.
Julie Gorchynski, the intern, rejects this hypothesis, citing her medical experience as proof. After being exposed to the patient, she spent two weeks in intensive care due to respiratory problems, in the process developing hepatitis and vascular necrosis in her knees.
Not supporting these accusations, she then contacts the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, which will then offer another explanation.
A terrible chain reaction
According to the researchers, Gloria Ramirez would have used dimethyl sulfoxide (DMSO). It is a solvent sometimes used as a “home remedy” for pain. Users of this substance report that it tastes like garlic. In addition, it is sold as a gel, which may explain the fatty appearance of the patient’s body.
According to their study, DMSO would have accumulated in his body due to the urinary blockage caused by kidney dysfunctions. The oxygen administered to the emergency room would then act on this substance, transforming it into dimethylsulfone (DMSO2). However, DMSO2 tends to crystallize at room temperature. This, the authors note, could explain the particles floating in the patient’s blood inside the syringe.
Then, the electric shocks of the defibrillation would have transformed the DMSO2 into dimethyl sulfate (DMSO4). Still according to the report, published in 1997, it was this gas, very toxic, which would have caused the symptoms of exposed medical personnel. For the time being, this hypothesis is still accepted by the medical profession as a “probable reason” for the symptoms observed.
Gloria Ramirez’s family members have a different opinion. The unusual set of circumstances surrounding her death led them to believe that the medical staff had made a mistake, and that they were trying to blame the patient.