On a winter night in 1994, one woman entered the hospital for what would be her last visit. Little did she know that the condition plaguing her would end up making 23 staff members ill as well. The human body can be a strange thing, one that’s capable of so much but can also be taken down by so little. Would you believe that it could even make another person severely ill with just the slightest touch? This sounds like something straight out of science fiction, but it’s actually a real-life mystery that still doesn’t have a truly definitive answer. It’s the story of Gloria Ramirez, who was dubbed the “Toxic Lady” after she managed to make multiple hospital workers sick just from being in her presence. Ramirez’s story begins on Feb. 19, 1994, when she was admitted to the Riverside General Hospital in Riverside, California. Although Ramirez was no stranger to the hospital at this point in her life—she had unfortunately been diagnosed with advanced cervical cancer previously—this visit proved to be much stranger than any she’d had before. She was taken to the emergency room after complaining of alarming symptoms such as breathing difficulties, nausea, and a rapid pulse. Not only that, but nurses say she was incredibly confused when she was wheeled into the room.
It was then that her treatment began.
The nurses started going about their routine—they injected her with a few different sedatives in the hopes of calming her breathing and heart rate, but the medications did nothing. When it was clear to all of them that Ramirez wasn’t responding to the medications, their next course of action was to defibrillate her heart. However, just as the nurses were about to begin the procedure, they noticed what appeared to be oil pooling on Ramirez’s skin, and her body also seemed to be giving off an odor that smelled like an odd combination of fruit and garlic. At this point, Susan Kane, one of her nurses, decided that they’d need to draw blood from Ramirez, but when she did, she noticed an incredibly powerful smell coming from the tube. It reminded her of ammonia. Kane then handed off the tube of blood to another nurse in the room, Julie Gorchynski, who noticed that there were very small, off-white particles floating around in the blood. Suddenly Kane fainted and was taken out of the room.
It wasn’t just her, either.
As if that weren’t already strange enough, Gorchynski began to feel nauseated shortly after Kane was taken out of the room. She left the room and went to sit at the nurses station, saying she was lightheaded. A coworker came over to her to ask if she was all right, but she fainted before she could get an answer out. The respiratory therapist who had been in the room, Maureen Welch, would be the third person to faint after having contact with Ramirez. It was then that the hospital staff realized how strange the whole thing was, and they ordered a mandatory evacuation for all patients in the emergency room so they could be moved to the hospital parking lot temporarily. A total of 23 people who were in the emergency room that day became ill, and an additional five people had to be hospitalized after the strange events. Unfortunately, even with numerous attempts at CPR and defibrillation, after just 35 minutes at the hospital, Ramirez passed away due to kidney failure caused by her cervical cancer.
The investigation into her death began.
The investigation into what caused these strange occurrences had two scientists at the lead—Kirsten Waller and Maria Osorio. They interviewed all 34 of the crew members who had been working in the emergency room on Feb. 19 and used a simple questionnaire to ask them about the events of that day. They paid special attention to those who had the most extreme reaction to being in Ramirez’s presence, like muscle spasms, breathing troubles, and fainting. What they found surprised them, as it revealed that many of the people who were affected seemed to have some things in common. Those who came within two feet of Ramirez all had the most extreme symptoms, and it was only women who had severe symptoms, even though some men were affected. Everyone who fell ill after the event also had normal blood tests afterward—no pale specks in their blood, no sign of contamination whatsoever.
So what happened?
After their investigation, Waller and Osorio came to the conclusion that all of the affected emergency room workers were simply suffering from mass hysteria. None of them were having that, though. Gorchynski was adamant that something more was going on and tried to point to her own medical record to prove that she had never had a similar incident before. Gorchynski actually developed hepatitis and avascular necrosis—what is essentially the death of bone tissue—in her knees and spent two weeks in the intensive care unit after Ramirez’s hospital stay. The case was eventually passed on to the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory to see if scientists there could come up with a scenario that would explain what happened. Although the strange events surrounding Ramirez’s hospital stay and death were never officially declared, they thought they knew the answer. After examining Ramirez’s body, the laboratory determined that she may have been using a substance known as dimethyl sulfoxide as an at-home treatment for her pain—why she thought this would work, we have no idea. It’s actually something you can find pretty easily at any hardware store. It’s an incredibly powerful degreaser that has a garlicky odor. Because it’s often found as a gel, investigators think this might explain why Ramirez’s skin took on a greasy appearance. Because of her kidney issues, it is thought that the dimethyl sulfoxide she was taking began to back up in her system, and this is what investigators think may have caused the kidney failure that ultimately brought her to the hospital on the day she died. To add even more credibility to this theory, dimethyl sulfoxide converts to dimethyl sulfone when exposed to oxygen, and that substance actually crystallizes at room temperature—these crystals were later found in Ramirez’s blood, possibly formed as a result of shifting from body temperate while inside her body to room temperature in its container. It gets even weirder from there, too. The lab determined that the shocks coming from the defibrillator may have converted the substance into dimethyl sulfate, an incredibly potent poisonous gas—potent enough, evidently, to make the majority of an emergency room staff sick in some way or another.
Makes sense, right?
The Riverside Coroner’s Office ultimately ruled that it was the most likely cause of what happened to both Ramirez and the affected hospital workers based on the evidence they had to support the theory. Her family publicly disagreed with the conclusion and even hired their own pathologist the tell them why she had died. They believed that the hospital was trying to cover up the actual cause of her death and filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Riverside County. There’s some strange evidence that lends them some credibility, too—there had apparently been multiple gas-related incidents at the hospital before, and the lead investigator in Ramirez’s case, Stephanie Albright, committed suicide shortly into the investigation. A colleague later admitted she was under a great deal of stress because of the case. Oh, and the blood that was taken from Ramirez? It managed to disappear at some point during the investigation. Unfortunately, Ramirez’s family was unable to come to any conclusions because her heart was missing from her body, her other organs had suffered from cross-contamination, and her body was just too badly decomposed at the time to find out much. She was later buried in Olivewood Memorial Park in Riverside, and the mystery of her death remains without a definitive answer.