Gloria Ramirez and the Riverside Miasma, a Medical Mystery
At 8:15pm on February 19, 1994, one Gloria Ramirez arrived at the emergency room of Riverside General Hospital suffering from the effects of advanced cervical cancer. She was extremely confused, and suffering from problems with her breathing and heartbeat. All pretty normal ER fare so far. The ER staff did the usual things to try to stabilize her heart and breathing: various drugs were injected via IV bags. She had also been breathing pure oxygen on her way to the hospital. She didn’t respond to the drugs, and the staff went to the next step, attempting to defibrillate her heart with electricity. Again, all standard responses.
This though is where things got weird. Upon defibrillation, several people noticed an oily sheen on Gloria’s body. Some also noticed what was described as a fruity/garlicky odour, apparently coming from her mouth. Susan Kane, a registered nurse, drew a vial of blood from the unfortunate Ms. Ramirez. She passed the vial to one Dr. Julie Gorchynski, who noticed manila coloured particles in the blood. Then Nurse Kane fainted, and was removed from the ER. Dr. Gorchynski felt faint and went to sit at a nurses station. When asked if she was OK, she also fainted. Then Maureen Welch, a respiratory therapist who was working on Julia also passed out. At this point all hell broke loose, the Emergency Room was evacuated to the parking lot, and a skeleton staff attempted to save Ms. Ramirez to no avail. At 8:50 PM she was pronounced dead from kidney failure related to her cancer. Subsequently Dr. Gorchynski spent two weeks in intensive care, and developed hepatitis and avascular necrosis in her knees. In all 32 or more people were affected, six of them seriously, though Dr. Gorchynski’s case was by far the worse.
Right, this is an X-Files episode? Yes, yes it was, in that this incident was used as the basis for a subsequent X-Files episode. So what the hell happened here? The short answer is, no one knows. While the incident was investigated, a number of agencies being involved, critical evidence was either never tested or destroyed. The IV bags and lines hooked to Gloria were never tested for example, even though the people who handled her blood and IV lines were the most effected. And when the hospital released her body for independent testing, they had stored it improperly and major decomposition had set in. Suffice it to say, no actual evidence of chemical toxins was found, either in the ER or in the blood of the victims.
So while this case is still a mystery, there are three main theories. The first and most obvious is mass hysteria. It has all the hallmarks of a case of mass hysteria. Most of the victims were women (sorry, but the gentle sex does seem to be more prone to mass hysteria than men,) and there were people right next to Gloria Ramirez who were completely unaffected by the whole thing. Unfortunately, people suffering from mass hysteria simply do not suffer actual medical abnormalities. So I’m going with the theory that while the incident may have triggered an outbreak of mass hysteria in the ER that night, there was indeed a real chemical toxin of some sort present.
Another theory is that someone was running a secret meth lab in the hospital, and were using IV bags to surreptitiously move meth components around. And somehow one of these bags got hooked up to the unfortunate Ms. Ramirez. This theory is not completely far fetched. The symptoms of the outbreak do match what is found in meth lab poisonings, and the hospital’s apparent stonewalling and evidence destruction indicate they might have realized they had something to hide. Still, seems kind of a stretch.
Lastly we have the most curious theory. Ms Ramirez had very possibly been treating herself with dimethyl sulfoxide (DMSO,) a solvent used as a home remedy for pain. And due to her urinary blockage, it built up in her bloodstream. Then the paramedics administered pure oxygen, which converted the DMSO in her blood to dimethyl sulfone (DMSO2.) It should be noted that at room temperature DMSO2 crystallizes into brown crystals, and brown flecks were observed in Gloria’s blood. Lastly, the electricity applied to her body converted some of the DSMO2 into dimethyl sulfate (DMSO4,) which was released into the environment when her blood was drawn.
And what is DMSO4? Well, it’s what is commonly referred to as a nerve gas. It’s extremely toxic, and could easily explain the symptoms experienced by the victims. This was actually accepted as the cause of the incident by many people, but it’s not a slam dunk. No traces of it were found for example, and people with IQs vastly greater than mine are still debating whether this particular scenario could have actually converted DMSO2 into DMSO4.
So were the victims of the Riverside Miasma felled by a fluke combination of a patient self-medicating, paramedics administering Oxygen, and a defibrillator? Like one of the other great unanswered questions of our times, how many men does it take to load a new roll of toilet paper into a toilet paper dispenser? … no one knows.
A far more detailed account of the case can be found here, and yes, some of the minor details there don’t seem to jibe with other sources I used to write this post.
(The above image having been painted in 1567 is Public Domain under US copyright law, at least until Congress takes its next crack at turning over all art and creativity to corporate control. It’s a painting called “The Land of Cockaigne” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Cockaigne was a mythical medieval land of myth and plenty, where food was abundant and sexuality freely practised, in harsh contrast to normal medieval peasant life. I used it to illustrate the post because I couldn’t find any images of the actual case, and people passed out under weird circumstances seemed to fit.)