She was admitted to the emergency room for rapid heartrate and irregular breathing…
Her name was Gloria Ramirez but from February 19, 1994 on, she would be known as the “Toxic Lady.”
Ramirez was a 31 year old mother of two who had been diagnosed with cervical cancer. She was taken to Riverside General Hospital in Riverside, California by ambulance to the ER about 8:15pm.
She was conscious but incoherent. She was given a cocktail of drugs to stabilize her. This included Valium (used to treat anxiety and seizures ), Versed (a sedative ), Ativan (used to treat anxiety ), Lidocaine (a local anesthetic ) and Bretylium (an antiarrhythmic ). Ramirez was given oxygen in the ambulance and they were helping Ramirez’s to breathe in the ER with an Ambu-bag (a mask with a rubber balloon-like attachment that simulates mouth-to-mouth resuscitation) when she went into atrial fibrillation (commonly known as AFib, a quivering or irregular heartbeat, an arrhythmia ) and a defibrillator was used (electrical paddles used to shock the heart into a regular beating pattern).
Then… things started to get strange…
When the ER staff removed Ramirez’s shirt, they noticed that her skin appeared oily and that her skin and breath smelled like garlic. Nurse Susan Kane took a blood sample and noticed an ammonia smell of the blood. She called Maureen Welch, a respiratory therapist over to confirm her findings. Welch took the vial from Kane and passed it to Dr. Julie Gorchynski. Gorchynski and Humberto Ochoa, the head doctor in the ER that night, noticed small particles floating in the blood. Then Kane fainted.
Gorchynski began to feel faint and went out to the nurse’s station to sit down where she fainted as well. She was shaking and stopped breathing for periods of time.
Welch was the next to pass out. When she came to, she was unable to move her arms and legs.
Other staff members began to feel sick and Ochoa ordered that the ER be evacuated to the parking lot. A few people stayed behind to help Ramirez, who died within 45 minutes of arriving in the ER. Her official cause of death was kidney failure as a result of her cancer. In the end, 23 people reported symptoms attributed to their contact with Ramirez. Five of these people were admitted to the hospital for their symptoms.
The worst of these was Gorchynski who was in the Intensive Care Unit of the hospital for two weeks. She suffered from apnea (going for periods of time without breathing), hepatitis (a disease that causes inflammation of the liver), pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas) and damage to the bone marrow in her legs. One nurse suffered from tremors and apnea and was hospitalized for five days. Another nurse with apnea spent ten days in the hospital.
It took over two months for researchers to collect all the evidence they needed to make an educated guess as to what happened in that emergency room that night. By the time the body was released to the family for burial, the body was badly decomposed, organs were missing and those remaining in the body were too contaminated for any additional tests to be done. Ramirez was buried in Riverside, California in an unmarked grave.
There are two schools of thought on what caused so many around Ramirez to take ill that evening…
The first theory is possibly the most difficult to accept. It could have been a case of mass hysteria. Those that stick to this claim cite that the oily appearance of Ramirez’s skin, the ammonia smell or particles in her blood were all unusual enough to trigger anxiety in those treating her. The combination of these anomalies and the fainting of Kane could have caused other members of the ER team to panic initiating most of the early symptoms felt by the doctors and nurses that took ill. Also, almost all of those that fell ill after their contact with Ramirez were female. In documented cases of mass hysteria, women are more likely to fall victim than their male counterparts. The paramedics that transported Ramirez to Riverside General Hospital were exposed to her blood but did not report any illness at all.
The second theory is a bit more difficult to understand. The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory was brought in to research the case. After nine months of study, they would claim that Ramirez herself was not toxic, but a chain reaction in her blood was. They believe that Ramirez used a substance called dimethyl sulfoxide (DMSO). DMSO is byproduct of wood processing. It is used as a chemical solvent and degreaser. The FDA has approved it for use in preserving organs for transplant. It is available without a prescription and can be purchased in many health stores and on the internet. It can also be purchased at the hardware store in gel form. It absorbs quickly into the skin and people use it as a pain reliever. The use of DMSO could explain the oily appearance of Ramirez’s skin and the garlicy odor.
DMSO is one oxygen molecule away from dimethyl sulfone (DMSO2). DMSO2 is an organic sulfur compound that is also used to treat pain and can also be purchased without a prescription. The Livermore Lab suggested that when Ramirez was given oxygen in the ambulance, an abundance of unprocessed DMSO (due to her kidney failure) oxidized to form DMSO2.
When DMSO2 is heated up and then cooled, it can crystalize. This would explain the particles seen floating in Ramirez’s blood by the ER staff. The DMSO2 was heated by her body temperature, then when her blood was drawn, the blood cooled to room temperature and the crystals were seen in the vial.
To this point, there was no problem. The use of DMSO and/or DMSO2 is not illegal nor is it normally hazardous to the user or those that encounter the user.
The problem, according to the Livermore Lab, came when the defibrillator was used on Ramirez in the ER. The electric shocks caused a chemical reaction in the DMSO2 and turned it in to dimethyl sulfate (DMSO4). DMSO4 is toxic when inhaled and contact with skin can be fatal. When watered down and then heated, it creates sulfuric acid. It corrodes metal. Symptoms of exposure can be delayed up to 12 hours. It is irritating to the eyes and respiratory tract. It can burn the skin. Acute exposure can cause headaches and giddiness. Prolonged exposure may cause changes in vision, tearing of the eyes, sensitivity to light, coughing, difficulty breathing, nausea and vomiting. Severe exposure can cause seizures, paralysis, deliriousness and coma.
When asked to examine and smell the blood drawn from Ramirez, the ER staff was exposed to this toxic chemical which could have caused the symptoms of those that fell ill. The Riverside County coroner agreed with the findings of the Livermore Lab, but the family disagrees. They deny that she used DMSO to treat her pain. Their attempt to have the body reevaluated before burial was thwarted by the state of the body when it was released to them.
Gorchynski suffered permanent leg damage from the event.
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