On the evening of 19 February, 1994, Gloria Ramirez was rushed to the emergency room of Riverside Hospital, California; here was the beginning of one of the world’s most baffling medical mysteries.
Gloria had been suffering from the effects of cervical cancer. She had been receiving chemotherapy at home and according to her family, was expected to live a couple more years. However, on that evening, her fiancée, Johnnie Estrada, called an ambulance after Gloria complained about severe chest pains combined with vomiting and respiratory issues. 1
As she was rushed through the doors of the hospital, she was awake but incoherent. She was taking shallow and rapid breaths and her heart was beating at an alarming rate. In an attempt to sedate Gloria, medical staff injected her with several drugs including Valium and Ativan. Gloria immediately started responding to the drugs negatively leading doctors to defibrillate her heart.
It was now that doctors began to notice some obscurities…
There appeared to be an oily sheen which was covering Gloria’s body and a fruity, garlic, odour emanated from her mouth. When a nurse attempted to draw blood from Gloria, she noticed an ammonia-like smell. When another nurse attempted to draw blood, she noticed crystal-like particles floating in the blood.
Suddenly, the nurse fainted, followed by another nurse and another nurse.
In total, 23 people within the vicinity of Gloria became ill with 6 being hospitalised. It appeared as though some sort of fumes had risen up from Gloria and affected the hospital workers. They suffered from dizzy spells, fainting, vomiting and respiratory trouble. “I’ve worked in an emergency room for seven years and I’ve never had anything like this happen,” said Susan Kane, one of the nurses affected. One of the most baffling aspects of the case is that none of the ambulance staff, who were in extremely close vicinity of Gloria, were affected by the bizarre symptoms that other workers experienced.
Gloria was soon pronounced dead. Following her death, her body was isolated in an aluminium container and the emergency room closed and patients taken outside to the car park. “We are trying to get background before we approach the body. We don’t want to put more people at risk,” announced Deputy Coroner Alan Wesefeldt. 2 The emergency room wouldn’t open until the following morning after being thoroughly cleaned by a Riverside Fire Department hazardous material team, clad in blue protective uniforms.
An autopsy wasn’t conducted until the following week. This wasn’t your regular autopsy, however. The pathologists assigned to the duty were clad in gas masks and oxygen masks. It was like a scene from a sci-fi movie. If anybody was expecting Gloria’s autopsy to reveal some answers regarding the seemingly toxic fumes that emanated from her body or her cause of death then they were going to be sadly mistaken.
“There is no clear-cut evidence that it (her body) was contaminated with anything,” said Dr. Jeffrey Simons of Riverside Community Hospital. 3 It was later announced that Gloria had died from dysrhythmia triggered by kidney failure stemming from cervical cancer.
The first theory was that the sick workers had somehow been poisoned by a deadly class of chemicals, organophosphates, which are common in insecticides and pesticides. In fact, doctors suggested that Gloria had possibly committed suicide by ingesting insecticide or pesticide. This theory was strongly refuted by Gloria’s family, who insisted that she wasn’t suicidal and that no such chemicals were found in her apartment.
California’s Department of Health and Human Services sent two scientists to investigate. They interviewed hospital staff that had been in the emergency room that evening and had them fill out a questionnaire. They found that those who were afflicted had normal blood test results after the ordeal and that they were mostly women as opposed to men. This led them to believe that they had suffered from mass hysteria. Again, this claim was strongly refuted. For one, those afflicted were all professional emergency room workers that deal with horrific situations day in and day out. Furthermore, some of those afflicted spent weeks in the intensive care unit.
Eventually, Riverside Coroner’s Office contacted Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory to investigate. They concluded that Gloria had been using dimethyl sulfoxide as a home remedy to alleviate her pain. This would explain the garlic scent as well as the layer of oil that appeared on Gloria’s skin. Users report that dimethyl sulfoxide tastes like garlic and is sold in gel form. However, this certainly doesn’t explain the hospital workers falling ill after being exposed to Gloria.
They theorised that the use of dimethyl sulfoxide combined with the oxygen administered in the emergency room formed dimethyl sulphate which crystallises at room temperature. Gloria’s family again disagreed with this theory and there was no evidence of dimethyl sulfoxide found in her apartment. They aren’t the only ones to disagree, either. This theory provoked a backlash from numerous scientists who believe it seems improbable and far-fetched, adding that the symptoms experienced by the hospital workers would not correlate with those experienced to exposure to dimethyl sulphate.
Stanley Jacob, a scientist who did intensive clinical research on dimethyl sulfoxide doubted this theory too. A conversion from dimethyl sulfoxide to dimethyl sulphate had never before been seen within the human body thus it seems extremely unlikely.
Two months after her death, Gloria’s family ordered an independent autopsy. They hired Dr. Richard Fukumoto who complained about how decomposed Gloria’s body was. As it turned out, she had been stored in a faulty freezer room. Fukumoto was never able to find a cause of death. In fact, during the autopsy it was noticed that Gloria’s heart was missing. The coroner’s office never returned her heart after conducting their own autopsy, leading the Ramirez family to believe that the agencies spoiled and destroyed evidence as part of an elaborate cover up. Going on this cover up theory, the New Times published an article in May of 1997 speculating that somebody was making methamphetamine in the hospital and smuggling it out in intravenous bags.
Was it mass hysteria? Was it a chemical reaction? Was it an elaborate cover up? Just what exactly happened in that emergency room on the evening of 19 February, 1994, remains a grim mystery.
- The Press-Enterprise – 21 February, 1994 – “After Tragedy, Family Wonders Why”
- Daily Breeze – 21 February, 1994 – “Doctor, Nurses Overcome by Fumes from Patient”
- Austin American-Statesman – 26 February, 1994 – “Autopsy Finds No Source of Fumes that Sickened 6”