On February 19, 1994, 31-year-old Gloria Ramirez was rushed to Riverside General Hospital in California at 8:15 PM. Gloria, who had been previously diagnosed with cervical cancer, was conscious but confused and unable to answer any questions properly. Her heart was beating too fast for her body, her breathing was shallow, and her blood pressure was dropping.
Gloria was injected with Versed, Valium, and Ativan to sedate her, and lidocaine and bretylium to ease her tachyarrhythmia. She was not responding so the ER staff decided to try and defibrillate her heart. This is when nurses noticed an oily sheen on her body and a fruity, garlicky smell coming from her mouth.
Susan Kane, a registered nurse, started drawing blood from Gloria’s arm and noticed an ammonia-like smell coming from the syringe. She passed it to a medical student, Julie Gorchynski, who then saw manila-colored particles in the blood.
Within moments, Kane complained that her face was burning and fainted. Physician Humberto Ochoa called for a gurney and Kane was wheeled out of the room. Meanwhile, Gorchynski began to feel nauseated and lightheaded. She left the room and sat at the nurse’s desk but passed out moments later. Next, Maureen Welch, a respiratory therapist, also fainted.
It had been minutes since Gloria had entered the ER and a series of staff members began to feel ill causing an internal emergency. They were ordered to evacuate all emergency patients to the parking lot. While the infected staff removed their clothes and placed them in bags out in the parking lot, a skeleton crew worked on saving Gloria’s life.
Unfortunately, after 40 minutes of CPR and defibrillation, Gloria Ramirez was pronounced dead at 8:50 PM. Two nurses moved Gloria’s body to an isolation anteroom. One of them, Sallie Balderas, began to throw up and complained her skin was burning.
A total of 23 out of 37 staff members that night were ill and 5 were hospitalized. Balderas spent ten days in the hospital suffering from apnea. Gorchynski spent two weeks in an intensive unit with hepatitis and avascular necrosis in her knees (a disease where bone tissue doesn’t get enough blood and begins to die) and subsequently spent months using crutches.
A hazmat team arrived shortly after and examined the hospital but found no chemicals. Days later, the Riverside Coroner’s Office performed an autopsy in an airtight examining room. They examined the body and air from the body bag but the results were inconclusive.
Nevertheless, Gloria’s cause of death was said to be cardiac dysrhythmia resulting from kidney failure from her cervical cancer.
#1 Mass Hysteria
Two scientists, Drs. Ana Maria Osorio and Kirsten Waller, from the California Department of Health and Human Services, interviewed 34 staff members. They concluded that the medical personnel had suffered from mass hysteria, most likely triggered by the fruity, garlicky odor.
Both Gorchynski and Welch deny this as a possibility. Gorchynski even filed a lawsuit seeking $6 million in damages, stating, among other things, that mass hysteria does not cause avascular necrosis. Furthermore, she pointed out the likelihood of 23 trained ER staff members, who are not unfamiliar to strange odors, would succumb so easily to mass hysteria.
The Forensic Science Center, led by deputy director Pat Grant, from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, found an abnormally large amount of dimethyl sulfone in Gloria’s system. As such, they theorized that she had been using DMSO (aka dimethyl sulfoxide) as an anti-inflammatory.
Interestingly, DMSO is merely one oxygen atom away from dimethyl sulfone. If Gloria used this gel to cope with cervical cancer pain it would explain why her skin seemed to be covered in an oily sheen and why a fruity, garlicky smell was emanating from her mouth.
Livermore Labs believe that when the paramedics gave Gloria an oxygen mask on the way to the hospital, it mixed with the DMSO and caused an oversaturation of the chemical. This led to some of it crystallizing and appearing as particles, such as those identified in the syringe by the nurse.
Though this first part of the theory was tested and confirmed it didn’t explain how the harmless chemical ended up infecting 23 people. To explain how this happened, Grant’s team came up with a theory, which they never tested.
It is hypothesized that the electric shocks from the defibrillator caused the dimethyl sulfone to breakdown and mix with naturally present sulfate compounds in Gloria’s body, potentially generating dimethyl sulfate — a potent chemical that can cause paralysis, delirium, convulsions, and damage the heart, liver, and kidneys, and central nervous system.
Though the team who came up with this theory supports it as a possibility, many other scientists, including Stanley Jacob (who did most of the chemical’s clinical research in the 60s) have claimed this to be impossible.
One issue people have with the theory is that industrial workers who have accidentally been exposed to dimethyl sulfate did not have the same symptoms of the hospital staff. The most likely symptom to appear first is crying — as if the person had just been sprayed with tear gas. Moreover, it would have taken longer for its effects to have been felt.
The coroner’s office sided with this theory and claims it to be the most likely cause of the event.
Gloria Ramirez’s family denies that she used DMSO.
#3 Hospital’s Poor Conditions
In 1991, poisonous gas was accidentally released from a sterilizer at the hospital and two employees were hospitalized. During an inspection in 1993, sewer gas was discovered in the ER.
This led to Gloria’s family believing she died because of the hospital’s poor conditions. Oddly, the coroner who performed Gloria’s original autopsy, Dan Cupido, claimed she had not died of natural causes but later changed his opinion.
Furthermore, Stephenie Albright, an investigator from the coroner’s office who was assigned to Gloria’s case, committed suicide one month into the investigation. According to Cupido, she had been under a lot of pressure.
Most alarmingly, the syringe which contained Gloria’s blood was thrown away, “accidentally”.
The Ramirez family filed a malpractice and wrongful death lawsuit against Riverside County, as they are certain the hospital is covering up what truly happened.
In 1997, the New Times LA published a theory in which they claimed that Gloria’s death and the illness of 23 staff members were caused by methylamine — a precursor drug used in the production of methamphetamines. Interestingly, it is known to have an ammonia-like smell.
According to this theory, members of the hospital’s staff were involved in drug making and smuggling. It is believed they used IV bags to smuggle methylamine and that an infected one was accidentally given to Gloria, not only resulting in her death but also in the intoxication of the staff.
Perhaps the most compelling evidence is what Livermore Labs found while examining Gloria’s organs. In their report, it was stated that they had found an abnormal amount of nicotinamide in Gloria’s system. Nicotinamide is a type of vitamin B3 which is commonly mixed with illegal drugs as it adds to the euphoria. Plus it is cheap and potent, and can easily increase profits.
Furthermore, Riverside County is America’s largest drug trafficking distribution center.
Two months after her death, Gloria Ramirez was laid to rest at Olivewood Memorial Park on April 20, 1994.
Even after 25 years, no one knows for sure what happened the night Gloria entered the ER room.