Mind & Body

The "Toxic Lady" Emitted Fumes That Hospitalized Her Doctors

There aren't a lot of people whose deaths inspired episodes of "The X-Files." But none of them deserved it as much as Gloria Ramirez. They called her "the toxic lady," and to this day, we're not sure what happened to her.

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A Perilous Patient

Here's what we know for sure. At 8:15 p.m. on February 19, 1994, 31-year-old cervical cancer patient Gloria Ramirez was admitted to Riverside General Hospital in Riverside, California. She was conscious, but suffering. Her breaths were shallow, her heart was beating rapidly, and her blood pressure was plummeting. They injected her with a suite of standard medications, and attempted to inject air into her lungs with a device known as an Ambu-bag (think a bellows, but shaped like a football). Two things seemed strange about her condition: Her skin seemed to have a slightly oily sheen, and her breath had a smell like fruit and garlic. And then, they attempted to take her blood.

A nurse named Susan Kane was assigned that task and noticed that the room began to take on a strange, chemical smell as the syringe filled with blood. She gave the syringe to respiratory therapist Maureen Welch, who thought the blood smelled funny — not like the telltale scent of chemotherapy drugs, but more like ammonia. Welch then passed the syringe to medical resident Julie Gorchynski, who saw small, manila-colored particles floating in it. That's when Kane, who'd been leaning over Ramirez to find the source of the smell, fainted.

Later, she said her face felt as though it was burning. Her fellow staff placed her limp body on a gurney and carried it out of the trauma center. Gorchynski felt the lightheadedness next, barely making it out of the room before she fainted as well. She also began showing other symptoms: Her whole body began to shake, and she would intermittently stop breathing. Welch fainted next, and when she woke up, she couldn't control her limbs. Several other staff members at the hospital began exhibiting similar symptoms, and administrators declared a state of emergency as doctors, nurses, and patients were filed into the building's parking lot. A skeleton crew remained behind to tend to Ramirez, who was eventually declared dead at 8:50 p.m. By the time the incident passed, 23 people had fallen ill, and five would need hospitalization.

A Chemical Chain Reaction

Staff members continued to fall prey to whatever it was that happened to Gloria Ramirez even after she passed away. As you can probably imagine, the event sparked a massive investigation. But at the first pass, medical detectives came up with distinctly unsatisfying solutions ranging from a coincidental emission of poisonous sewer gas to a case of mass hysteria. Most frustrating of all, no sign of toxic chemicals was discovered in the hospital in the aftermath. But in Ramirez's autopsy, doctors turned up elevated levels of dimethyl sulfone.

Another theory began to emerge — one that didn't rely on blaming symptoms such as hepatitis, pancreatitis, and avascular necrosis to mass hysteria. If, hypothetically, Ramirez had been using a popular home remedy known as DMSO to alleviate her cancer symptoms, it may have combined with the oxygen in her oxygen mask to form the dimethyl sulfone. Investigators attempted exposing DMSO to oxygen to see if such a thing were possible, and were able to form large amounts of manila-colored dimethyl sulfone crystals in the process.

There's just one problem: Dimethyl sulfone isn't toxic either. But it might have kicked off a chain reaction that resulted in a massive amount of toxic fumes. When one molecule of oxygen combines with DMSO, you get dimethyl sulfone. But when two molecules of oxygen combine with dimethyl sulfone, you get dimethyl sulfate, which really does cause serious problems. When absorbed into the body, it can cause convulsions, delirium, paralysis, coma, and delayed damage to various organs. The good news? Not much — except that people don't really use DMSO to treat themselves anymore.

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Written by Reuben Westmaas January 9, 2018

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