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The Toxic Lady Who Infected 23 ER Staff

Larry is a true crime fan and has several years of experience reporting on true crime cases and hosts a true-crime podcast.

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On February 19, 1994. 31-year-old Gloria Ramirez arrived at Riverside General Hospital in California. Gloria arrived conscious but confused and unable to answer questions. Doctors noticed her heart was beating too fast for her body, her breathing was too shallow, and her blood pressure was quickly dropping.

Doctors injected Gloria with Versed, Valium and Ativan to sedate her. She was also given lidocaine and bretylium to stem her tachyarrhythmia. She still was not responding, so the ER staff defibrillated her heart. Just then nurses noticed an oily sheen on her body. Staff also smelled a fruity, garlicky smell coming from her mouth.

Susan Kane was a registered nurse at the ER and was drawing blood from Gloria's arm when she noticed an ammonia-like smell from the syringe. Medical student Julie Gorchynski examined the patient's blood and noticed manilla-colored particles.

Just then, Susan started to complain that her face was burning and quickly fainted. ER physician Humberto Ochoa immediately requested a gurney and Kane was quickly wheeled out of the room.

Minutes later, Gorchynski started to feel nauseated and lightheaded. She decided to leave the room and returned to the nurse's desk. This is when she passed out. Maureen Welch was a respiratory therapist who also happened to be near the patient and she also fainted.

Minutes after Gloria entered the ER, several staff members began to feel sick, leading to a internal emergency. Hospital staff immediately ordered all emergency patients be evacuated to the parking lot. Those who were infected removed their clothes and placed in bags.

Inside, only a skeleton crew remained working on Glorida. However, after 40 minutes of CPR, Gloria passed away at 8:50 PM. Glorida's body was quickly moved to an isolation anteroom. One of the members of the skeleton crew was Sallie Balderas and she immediately began to throw up and say her skin was burning.

By the end of the day, 23 out of 37 staff members that night had become ill, with five being hospitalized. Sallie was hospitalized for 10 days. Gorchynski spent multiple weeks in the ICU with hepatitis and avascular necrosis in her knees. She later would spend months using crutches.

A hazmat team was eventually dispatched to the hospital and analyzed the hospital, but no chemicals were found. Riverside Coroner's Office performed the autopsy, examining the body and air from the body bag, but the results were inconclusive.

However doctors claimed Gloria's death was caused by cardiac dyshthmia, as a result of kidney failure from her cervical cancer.

Theories

There are multiple theories as to what really happened. With no certainties about what actually transpired, we have to consider all ideas.

1. Mass Hysteria

California Department of Health and Human Services doctors Ana Maria Osorio and Dr. Kirsten Waller interviewed 34 staff members from the hospital. Their research concluded that the medical staff just suffered from mass hysteria.

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However, this didn't sit well with Gorchynski, and Welch denied this as a possibility. Gorchynski ended up filing a lawsuit seeking $6 million in damages. She even said that mass hysteria does not cause avascular necrosis. She even pointed out that 23 trained ER staff members would not succumb easily to mass hysteria.

2. DMSO

The Forensic Science Center, led by Pat Grant from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, got involved in the case. Grant and his team found a rather large amount of dimethyl suflone in Gloria's system. They theorized that she had been using it as an anti-inflammatory.

DMSO happens to be only one oxygen atom away from dimethyl sulfone. She could have used this gel to cope with cervical cancer pain. This would be one explanation why her skin seemed to be covered in an oily sheen.

Livermore Labs theorized that when the paramedics gave Gloria an oxygen mask on the way to the ER, it mixed with the DMSO and created an oversaturation of the chemical. This caused the crystallization and appearing as particles, such as those seen in the syringe.

They managed to test the first part of this theory, but it didn't explain how the harmless chemical infected 23 people. Grant came up with a plausible theory, but they never tested it. They believe that electric shocks from the defibrillator caused the DMSO to break down and mix with present sulfate compounds in Gloria's body, creating a potent chemical that can cause paralysis, delirium and convulsions.

While Grant's team came up with this theory, many others do not support it and say it is impossible. Those who are against this theory point to incidents where industrial workers who were accidentally exposed to dimethyl sulfate did not have the same symptoms of the hospital staff.

However, the coroner supported this theory and said it was most likely the cause of the event. Gloria's family denies she ever used DMSO.

3. Poor Hospital Conditions

The hospital had been responsible for previous fatal incidents. In 1991, poisonous gas was released from a sterilizer accidentally, and two employees ended up being hospitalized. Then in 1993, sewer gas was discovered in the ER.

This made Gloria's family believe she died from the hospital's poor conditions. The coroner who performed Gloria's original autopsy claimed she did not die of natural causes, but he ended up changing his opinion.

Even more strange, Stephanie Albright, an investigator from the coroner's office who was assigned to Gloria's case, committed suicide one month into her investigation. The coroner claimed her suicide was brought on by being under a lot of pressure.

Even more suspicious, the syringe that contained Gloria's blood was thrown out accidentally. Gloria's family ended up filing a malpractice and wrongful death suit against Riverside County, believing the hospital was covering up what really happened.

4. Methylmine

The New York Times established their own theory, claiming Gloria's death and the sudden illness of 23 medical staff were caused by methylamine, a drug used in the production of methamphetamines. Strangely, it is known to have an ammonia-like smell.

The NYT theorized that the hospital's staff were involved in drug-making and smuggling. The theory suggests that the medical staff used IV bags to smuggle methylamine and that an infected IV was accidentally given to Gloria, leading to her death and the intoxication of the staff.

This kind of connects with what Livermore Labs found after examining Gloria's organs. According to Livermore Lab's report, they discovered an abnormal amount of nicotinamide in her system. Nicotinamide is a form of Vitamin B3 and is commonly mixed with illegal drugs and used to increase profits.

© 2022 Lawrence Lease

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