Urban Legend Status: TRUE
Gloria Ramirez (January 11, 1963 – February 19, 1994) was a Riverside, California, woman dubbed “the toxic lady” by the media when several Riverside General Hospital workers became ill after exposure to her body and blood. Her case was the basis for a scene in one episode of the American TV series The X-Files, an episode of the American TV drama Grey’s Anatomy, a segment of a show on Discovery Communications’ channel Investigation Discovery called “The New Detectives”, and the “Stink Bomb” segment of the animated film Memories.
The emergency room visit
About 8:15 in the evening on February 19, 1994, Ramirez was brought into the emergency room of Riverside General Hospital by paramedics, suffering from the effects of advanced cervical cancer. She was extremely confused, and suffering from bradycardia and Cheyne-Stokes respiration.
The medical staff injected her with Valium, Versed, and Ativan to sedate her, and agents such as lidocaine to stimulate her heartbeat. When it became clear that Ramirez was responding poorly to treatment, the staff tried to defibrillate her heart; at that point several people saw an oily sheen covering Ramirez’s body, and some noticed a fruity, garlic-like odor that they thought was coming from her mouth. A registered nurse named Susan Kane attempted to draw blood from Ramirez’s arm, and noticed an ammonia like smell coming from the tube.
She passed the syringe to Julie Gorchynski, a medical resident who noticed manila-colored particles floating in the blood. At this point, Kane fainted and was removed from the room. Shortly thereafter, Dr. Gorchynski began to feel nauseated. Complaining that she was light-headed, she left the trauma room and sat at a nurse’s desk. A staff member asked her if she was okay, but before she could respond she also fainted. Maureen Welch, a respiratory therapist who was assisting in the trauma room was the third to pass out. The staff was then ordered to evacuate all emergency room patients to the parking lot outside the hospital. A skeleton crew stayed behind to stabilize Ramirez. At 8:50, after forty five minutes of CPR and defibrillation, Ramirez was pronounced dead from kidney failure related to her cancer.
The county health department called in California’s Department of Health and Human Services, which put two scientists on the case, Doctors Ana Maria Osorio and Kirsten Waller. They interviewed 34 hospital staff who had been working in the emergency room on February 19. Using a standardized questionnaire, Osorio and Waller found that the people who had developed severe symptoms such as loss of consciousness, shortness of breath, and muscle spasms tended to have certain things in common. People who had worked within two feet of Ramirez and had handled her intravenous lines had been at high risk. But other factors that correlated with severe symptoms didn’t seem to match a scenario in which fumes had been released: the survey found that those afflicted tended to be women rather than men, and they all had normal blood tests after the exposure.
Possible role of dimethyl sulfoxide
Dr. Gorchynski denied that she had been affected by mass hysteria, and pointed to her own medical history as evidence. After the exposure, she spent two weeks in the intensive care unit with breathing problems, she developed hepatitis and avascular necrosis in her knees. Eager to clear her name and win her lawsuit against General Hospital in Riverside, she and RN Susan Kane contacted Livermore Laboratories for a second opinion.
Livermore Labs postulated that Ramirez had been taking dimethyl sulfoxide (DMSO), a solvent, as a home remedy for pain. Users of this substance report that it has a garlic-like taste. The Livermore scientists theorized that the DMSO in Ramirez’s system might have built up, due to urinary blockage. Oxygen administered by the paramedics would have combined with the DMSO to form dimethyl sulfone (DMSO2). DMSO2 is known to crystallize at room temperature, and crystals were observed in some of Ramirez’s drawn blood. Electric shocks administered during emergency defibrillation could have then converted the DMSO2 into dimethyl sulfate (DMSO4), a powerful poisonous gas, exposure to which could have caused the reported symptoms of the emergency room staff.
However, while the conversion from DMSO to DMSO2 may be scientifically plausible, the subsequent conversion from DMSO2 to DMSO4 inside the human body is questionable at best. In addition, while DMSO4 is highly volatile, it seems unlikely that it would have completely evaporated, leaving no trace whatsoever.
Final conclusion and burial
Two months after Ramirez died, her badly decomposed body was released for an independent autopsy and burial. The Riverside Coroner’s Office hailed Livermore’s DMSO conclusion as the probable cause of the hospital workers’ symptoms, while her family disagreed. The Ramirez family’s pathologist was unable to determine a cause of death because her heart was missing, her other organs were cross-contaminated with fecal matter, and her body was too badly decomposed. Ten weeks after she died, Ramirez was buried in an unmarked grave at Olivewood Memorial Park in Riverside.
Status of technical forensic analysis
The possible chemical explanation for this incident by Dr. Patrick M. Grant of the Livermore Forensic Science Center is beginning to appear in basic forensic science textbooks. In Houck and Siegel’s textbook, the authors opine that, although some weaknesses exist, the postulated scenario is “the most scientific explanation to date” and that “beyond this theory, no credible explanation has ever been offered for the strange case of Gloria Ramirez.”
Everything that Grant ever speculated or concluded about this incident was evaluated by professional forensic scientists, chemists, and toxicologists, passed peer-review in an accredited, refereed journal, and was published by Forensic Science International. The first paper was very technically detailed and did, in fact, give two potential chemical reaction mechanisms that may possibly have formed dimethyl sulfate from dimethyl sulfoxide and dimethyl sulfone precursors. The second communication gave supplemental support for the postulated chemical scenario, as well as insight into some of the sociology and vested interests inherent in the case.
One of the letters proposed the production of toxic chloramine gas due to urine mixing with bleach in a nearby sink. This hypothesis, previously proposed to the investigators and to the medical personnel involved in the incident, was apparently never considered by all involved. The noxious effects of this gas are documented in the New England Journal of Medicine, Vol.341:848-849, Sept.9,1999, “Severe Lung Injury after Exposure to Chloramine Gas from Household Cleaners”. In reality, Grant addressed this chloramine scenario in Ref. 8, and it did not come close to fitting the ER incident.
All or part of the article above was taken from the Wikipedia article Gloria Ramirez, licensed under CC-BY-SA.