On the evening of February 19, 1994, Gloria Ramirez, a 31-year-old mother of two, was rushed to the emergency room at Riverside General Hospital in Riverside, California. Ramirez, a patient with end-stage cervical cancer, complained of an irregular heartbeat and shortness of breath. On the way to the hospital, Ramirez was hooked up to a ventilator and given an intravenous infusion. By the time she arrived at the hospital, she was barely conscious, her speech was sluggish, her breathing was shallow, and her heart rate was fast.
The medical staff injected her with fast-acting sedatives and heart medications to relieve her symptoms. When there was no change, the doctors used a defibrillator. At this point, several people noticed an oily film covering Ramirez’s body, while others caught a fruity, garlic-like scent that they thought was coming from her mouth.
A nurse named Susan Kane stuck a needle into the patient’s arm to draw blood and immediately smelled ammonia. Kane gave the syringe to physician Maureen Welch, who confirmed the presence of an ammonia odour. Welch then handed the syringe to resident doctor Julie Gorczynski, who also caught the smell of ammonia. Moreover, Gorczynski noticed that unusual particles were floating in the patient’s blood. At this point, Kane fainted and had to be taken out of the intensive care unit. After a few moments, Gorczynski complained of nausea and also collapsed to the floor. Maureen Welch fainted third.
Twenty-three people fell ill that night, of whom five were hospitalized with various symptoms. Gorczynski was in the worst condition. Her body was shaking with convulsions and she was breathing intermittently. She was also diagnosed with hepatitis, pancreatitis and avascular necrosis of the knees, a condition in which bone tissue dies off. Gorchinski walked with crutches for several months. Gloria Ramirez died within 45 minutes of arriving at the hospital. The official cause of her death was a renal failure due to metastatic cancer.
The death of Ramirez and the impact her presence had on hospital staff is one of the most mysterious medical mysteries in recent history. The source of the toxic fumes was undoubtedly Ramirez’s body, but the autopsy results were inconclusive. The possibility that hazardous chemicals and pathogens might be in the emergency room was ruled out after a thorough search by a team of specialists. In the end, the health department said the hospital staff were likely to have suffered an outbreak of mass hysteria, possibly triggered by the smell. The report sparked outrage among many of the medical staff on duty that evening. The conclusion of the health department, in their opinion, offended their professionalism.
Eventually, the Federal Research Center in Livermore was asked to look at Ramirez’s autopsy results and toxicology reports. A forensic examination found many unusual chemicals in Ramirez’s blood, but none of them were toxic enough to cause the symptoms that the emergency room workers experienced. There were many different drugs in her body, such as lidocaine, paracetamol, codeine, and trimethobenzamide. Ramirez was sick with cancer and, understandably, was in severe pain. Many of these drugs were pain relievers.
Finding the source of the ammonia odour that was present in the intensive care unit turned out to be easy. Scientists discovered an ammoniacal compound in Ramirez’s blood, which most likely formed when her body broke down the anti-nausea drug, trimethobenzamide, which she was taking.
The most unusual chemical found in her blood was dimethyl sulfone, a sulphur compound found in some plants, found in small amounts in many foods and drinks, and sometimes naturally produced in our bodies from amino acids. But a decent concentration of dimethyl sulfone was found in Ramirez’s blood and tissues. Forensic experts suggested that the dimethyl sulfone was derived from dimethyl sulfoxide, or DMSO, which Ramirez must have been taking for pain relief. DMSO emerged in the early 1960s as a miracle drug and became very popular with athletes who used it to treat muscle tension until the FDA discovered. that prolonged use of the drug causes damage to the organs of vision. After that, the use of the drug was limited, but he went underground.
It is possible that Ramirez used DMSO topically to relieve pain. However, the drug was absorbed into the skin and entered the bloodstream. When paramedics hooked her up to a ventilator, DMSO oxidized to DMSO. It was dimethylsulfone that turned into those unusual crystals in the blood that Gorczynski discovered.
Dimethyl sulfone is relatively harmless except for one thing: if you add another oxygen atom to a molecule, you get dimethyl sulphate, a very nasty chemical. Dimethyl sulphate vapours instantly kill tissue cells. When ingested, dimethyl sulphate causes convulsions, delirium, paralysis, kidney, liver and heart damage. In severe cases, dimethyl sulphate can even kill a person.
What caused the dimethyl sulfone in Ramirez’s body to convert to dimethyl sulphate is controversial. Livermore scientists believe the transformation was caused by the cool air in the emergency room, but this theory is unfounded. Organic chemists scoff at this idea as no direct conversion of dimethyl sulfone to dimethyl sulphate has ever been observed. Others believe that the symptoms experienced by the nursing staff do not match the symptoms of dimethyl sulphate poisoning. In addition, the effects of exposure to dimethyl sulphate usually appear after a few hours, however, hospital staff began to faint and experience other symptoms after only a few minutes. Others remain skeptical that DMSO could have produced many suspicious chemicals.
A few years later, The New Times LA offered an alternative explanation – hospital staff illegally manufactured the drug methamphetamine and smuggled it in IV bags, one of which was accidentally supplied by Ramirez. Exposure to methamphetamine could cause bouts of nausea, headaches, and loss of consciousness. The idea of a secret methamphetamine laboratory in a large hospital not only sounds incredibly stupid, but it probably is. The basis for this wild theory was that Riverside County was one of the largest suppliers of methamphetamine in the country.
The DMSO theory is still the most plausible, but it still does not fully explain what happened. The bizarre incident surrounding the death of Gloria Ramirez remains a medical and chemical mystery.