The Death Of "The Toxic Lady" Remains An Unsolved Medical Case

'There is a chance that the mystery may remain a mystery,' the county's coroner spokesperson said at the time. Image credit:hxdbzxy/Shutterstock.com

The death of Gloria Ramirez is one of the most mysterious and sensational medical case studies of recent decades. 

In 1994, the 31-year-old woman was rushed to a hospital in California. Within a matter of hours, several medical staff who had come into contact with her fell acutely ill, with most suffering from muscle spasms, convulsions, and bouts of fainting. Many had to be hospitalized. Dubbed by the media as the “Toxic Lady,” the case still remains under debate in the scientific community, but a few varying theories have been put forward over the years. 

Ramirez, who was undergoing treatment for late-stage cervical cancer at the time, was rushed to Riverside General Hospital on the evening of February 19, 1994, and suffered a cardiac arrest upon her arrival, according to a New York Times report from February 22, 1994 (this early article falsely states she was being treated for ovarian cancer, but all later reports say she had cervical cancer.)

Things took an unusual turn when a nurse carried a routine blood test on the patient. Shortly after drawing the blood, it was reported that a strong ammonia smell started to fill the room. Doctors also noticed that the blood sample took on an unusual appearance as if it contained white crystals.  

As these peculiar factors emerged, a number of medical staff started to feel acutely sick, suffering from a range of symptoms including fainting, convulsions, difficulty breathing, and vomiting. The number of people affected varies from report to report, but the New York Times said in February 1994 that six members of the hospital staff were hospitalized, with one doctor developing acute circulatory problems. Discover Magazine later reported in 1995 that a total of 23 of the 37 emergency room staff members experienced at least one symptom. At around 20:30 that evening, the hospital decided to evacuate its emergency room, treating patients in the parking lot while workers wearing HAZMAT suits tested the air in the emergency room. 

Ramirez passed away later that same night. A coroner report in late-April 1994, revealed that she had died of kidney failure brought on by cervical cancer.

But the mysterious illness experienced by the medical staff remained uncertain. Early media reports suggest that the nurses and doctors were poisoned by noxious fumes that were emitted from the dying woman’s body. Indeed, many of the symptoms resembled poisoning by organophosphates – a class of chemicals used in both pesticides and chemical weapons. 

Ramirez's family took another opinion, asserting that the elaborate story of fumes was simply a cover-up by the hospital. The unusual set of circumstances surrounding her death led them to believe the medical staff had made some kind of an error and they were attempting to shift the blame onto the patient. Others suspected it could be an unusual case of mass hysteria, a phenomenon in which groups experience similar psychological or physical symptoms in response to a threat, whether real or otherwise.

Autopsies of Ramirez's body and investigations at the hospital did not clear up much of the confusion, revealing no presence of organophosphates nor any other suspicious agents. 

One group of scientists later reviewed the case in 1997 and reached an unlikely, although wholly possible, explanation. Writing in the journal Forensic Science International, researchers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory – a lab known for the development of nuclear weapons – detail a long and convoluted chain reaction that could explain the mysterious bout of illness seen that night. 

They speculate that Ramirez may have been using dimethyl sulfoxide as a topical homemade pain remedy. This topical pain treatment may have reacted with oxygen administered by the doctors to form dimethyl sulfone. This chemical is known to crystallize at room temperature, which could explain why crystals were observed in the blood sample. Electrical shocks from her defibrillation then could have then converted the dimethyl sulfone into dimethyl sulfate, a highly poisonous and corrosive gas. It's a convoluted explanation, but few other theories have been proposed.

For now, it seems, the case will remain unsolved.

"There is a chance that the mystery may remain a mystery," Tom DeSantis, the county's coroner spokesperson, remarked at the time. 

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