The case of the Toxic Lady is a modern medical mystery that has found its way into several TV shows including The X-Files, Grey’s Anatomy and The New Detectives. Although there have been attempts to explain it, none of the theories put forward manage to satisfy all the experts that have spent time trying to solve the mystery.
At 8:15 in the evening on 19th February, 1994, a 31-year-old woman named Gloria Ramirez, who was suffering from advanced cervical cancer, was rushed to the emergency room at Riverside General Hospital in California. She was extremely disoriented, had an abnormal heartbeat and was taking shallow, rapid breaths.
Efforts to stabilize her began quickly, with the medical staff administering a variety of treatments, including sedatives and drugs to stimulate her heart. It soon became evident that Ramirez wasn’t responding to treatment, so the staff tried to defibrillate her heart. At this point many of the people present started to notice a strange oily sheen covering her skin and a garlic-like smell coming from her mouth.
When a nurse named Susan Kane drew a blood sample from Ramirez’s arm, she noticed an ammonia-like odor coming from the syringe. She handed it to the respiratory therapist, Maureen Welch, who noticed the same smell. The syringe was then passed to Dr. Julie Gorchynski, and she saw odd, manila-colored particles floating around in the blood.
That’s when everything began to dissolve into chaos. Kane turned towards the door of the ER and collapsed, unconscious. Next Gorchynski began to feel nauseous. She sat down at the nurse’s desk, complaining light-headedness – and then passed out and started to convulse. As the two women were rushed out of the room for treatment, Welch was the third to succumb to unconsciousness.
Several staff members were now feeling ill, and an emergency was declared. The ER was evacuated into the parking lot, while a skeleton crew stayed behind to try and save Ramirez’s life. All their efforts failed. At 8:50, she was pronounced dead.
In total, 23 of the 37 staff members experienced symptoms, and five were hospitalized. Gorchynski was affected the worst, and she had to stay in intensive care for two weeks.
The Riverside County hazardous materials team was the first to arrive on the scene and begin the investigation. They searched the ER thoroughly, testing for every dangerous substance they had the capability for. They found nothing. There was no sign of any toxin of any kind.
An autopsy, performed in a sealed room by doctors in airtight suits, revealed that Gloria Ramirez had died of kidney failure due to her late stage cancer. However, no toxins were found in her body. Nothing at all that could explain the mass faintings and the very real physical ailments of the hospitalized staff members.
Baffled officials blamed the whole incident on mass hysteria, which is apparently political code for ”Hell if we know.” Many of the victims were understandably angered by this verdict, especially Gorchynski, who during her two-week hospitalization stopped breathing repeatedly, contracted hepatitis and pancreatitis, and developed necrosis of the bone marrow in her knees. She was crippled for months and needed several surgeries to recover. A rather impressive host of illnesses to have been caused by a mere delusion.
Scientists at the Forensic Science Center at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory came up with a more sensical theory. They found evidence of a chemical called dimethyl sulfone (DMSO2) in Ramirez’s blood. DMSO2 is a reaction product of dimethyl sulfoxide (DMSO), which is a solvent cancer patients sometimes use to relieve pain. The reaction could have been caused by the oxygen administered by the paramedics.
Even though neither chemical is dangerous, the scientists guessed that some unknown mechanism could have converted the DMSO2 into DMSO4, a powerful nerve gas that could have caused the symptoms suffred by the ER staff. The coroner’s office swallowed up the explanation despite criticism by many other chemists, who called the formation of DMSO4 a chemical impossibility. As of yet, the theory remains unconfirmed.
What happened that night in the Riverside General ER? Was it the release of poisonous gas by some unknown chemical reaction? If not, what could knock out almost two dozen people while leaving no trace of itself?