On February 19th, 1994, a young woman was admitted to the General Hospital in Riverside California, suffering from the effects of advanced cervical cancer. Within half an hour, she would be dead, with half of the on-call nurses unconscious. Her name was Gloria Ramirez, and her story would live in medical infamy as the case of the Riverside “Toxic Lady”.
The strange evening begins at 8:15pm, as Ramirez is hastily rushed into emergency by a team of paramedics. She was noted as being very confused and disoriented, and more importantly, was suffering from Bradycardia, a rested heart rate of under 60 beats per minute, coupled with Cheyne-Stokes respiration, an abnormal pattern of breathing. Ramirez was immediately given doses of Valium, Versed and Ativan to sedate her, followed by Lidocaine with the hopes of stimulating her heart rate. When this failed to work the hospital staff began defibrillation.
This is where things start to get pretty weird.
Many of the attending nurses claim to have seen an “oily sheen” covering the woman’s body. Some also noted having smelled a fruity, garlic-like odour coming from Ramirez’s mouth. Attending nurse Susan Kane attempted to draw blood from the woman’s arm, noting an ammonia-like smell coming from the tube. Moments after passing the vial to her colleague, medical resident Julie Gorchynski, Susan Kane complained about a burning sensation washing over her face and fainted. As the unconscious body of Susan Kane was removed from the trauma room, Dr. Gorchynski noted small manila-coloured particles floating in the vile of Gloria Ramirez’s blood. Dr Gorchynski began to feel nauseated, mentioning that she felt light-headed. She left to sit at a nurses station, and also fainted shortly afterwards. Maureen Welch, who was the on-call respiration therapist, was the third member of the emergency team to initially treat Ramirez to be mysteriously knocked unconscious, her limbs thrashing wildly on the floor. A skeleton-crew stayed and attempted to stabilize the woman, but could not. Ramirez was pronounced dead at 8:50pm, only thirty-five minutes after being admitted, her cause of death declared as kidney failure related to cancer.
Dr. Gorchynski spent two weeks in intensive care with breathing problems after her encounter with Ramirez. She claimed to have also developed hepatitis and avasuler necrosis in both her knees. She and RN Susan Kane sued the General Hospital at Riverside, both denying they had been affected by what the hospital referred to as “mass-hysteria”, and cited their newly developed heath issues as evidence of this.
The County Heath Department brought in California’s Department of Heath Services to perform a thorough investigation of the incident, giving the case to two scientists: Dr. Ana Osorio and Kristen Waller. They interviewed 34 members of the hospital staff who were present on the 19th and came to an interesting conclusion. Only those who had been within two-feet of the body, as well as those who had handled Gloria Ramirez’s intravenous lines, had developed the strange shortness of breath, involuntary muscle spasms, and eventual loss of consciousness.
At this same time Dr. Gorchynski and Susan Kane contacted Livermore National Labs to help shed further light on what exactly happened that night. What Livermore Lab’s postulated, from a chemistry stand point, was fascinating and almost hard to believe.
LNL discovered that Gloria Ramirez had been taking a solvent called DMSO or Dimethyl sulfoxide, a home remedy used with the intentions of decreasing pain. Users of DMSO have often reported a garlic-like taste to the solvent itself. Livermore Lab’s theorized that there had been a build-up of DMSO in Ramirez’s body, due to a urinary blockage which had been discovered after death. Over time, this would have caused a massive deposit of DMSO lingering in Ramirez with no way out. Oxygen administered by the paramedics would have, in theory, combined with the build-up of DMSO, thus creating DMSO2, or Dimethyl Sulfone. DMSO2 is known to crystallize at room temperature, which would explain the small particles observed in the blood which had been drawn by Susan Kane.
None of this would have been a big deal, but once the defibrillators were administered, it had become the perfect storm of deadly chemistry. The electric shocks which had been administered during defibrillation would have converted the DMSO2 into DMSO4, Dimethyl Sulfate, an extremely poisonous gas, which would have permeated the air surrounding the body. Chemistry suggests exposure to DMSO4 would have caused a reaction like those in the Riverside trauma room.
So the science backed up the theory, but was it actually possible?
The research collected by the team at Livermore Lab’s and Forensics Sciences Center was evaluated by professional forensic scientists, chemists, and toxicologists. It then passed peer-review. Conversion from DMSO to DMSO2, it seemed was scientifically plausible. Though some still questioned whether the conversion into DMSO4 was possible inside the human body, as it is quite volatile.
Two months after Gloria Ramirez’s death, her badly decomposed body was released for independent autopsy. Riverside coroner’s conclusion supported those at Livermore Labs in favour of the DMSO theory. Ramirez’s family pathologist was unable to determine a cause of death, as her heart was missing and her organs had been cross-contaminated with fecal matter. Ten weeks after her death, Gloria Ramirez’s body was buried in an unmarked grave at Olivewood Memorial Park.
The answers to what caused the reaction the nurses and doctors experienced that night at Riverside Hospital is still only theory. Of course, there have been many other theories, just as strange, about what might have caused such a bizarre situation. UFO believers, for instance, have cited Gloria Ramirez as an undeniable abduction victim, who’s body’s effects were, to them, the result of extraterrestrial meddling.
Whatever the case, I can’t help but feel a bit of empathy for Gloria Ramirez, who will forever be remembered for the strange incidents surrounding her death, instead of the 31 year old woman who lost her life to cancer, buried in an unmarked grave. Stories like hers are important to be remembered and explored, especially for those of us with a penchant for the unexplained, but hopefully not at the risk of losing sight of the humanity contained within them. I think Gloria’s story is a good reminder of that.