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Emergency Room Drama

The Gloria Ramirez Mystery

By James Donahue

The events surrounding the death of Gloria Ramirez on February 19, 1994 in California’s Riverside General Hospital rank among the great contemporary medical mysteries. The story is so bazaar it has been told and retold in various television documentaries and was even worked into an episode on the popular series The X-Files.

The 31-year-old Ramirez had been suffering from cervical cancer. On the evening of this event she was brought into the hospital’s emergency room by paramedics. She was confused, making incoherent utterances, her heart was racing, blood pressure dropping and she was having obvious difficulty getting her breath.

The emergency room staff injected Ramirez with sedatives and lidocaine to stimulate her heartbeat. But when she failed to respond the medical team used a defibrillator in a radical effort to get the heart pumping normally. As they were working on Ramirez, the hospital workers said they noticed an odd oily sheen to her body and there was a fruity, garlic-like odor.

Susan Kane, RN, drew blood from the woman’s arm and Maureen Welch, a respiratory therapist, placed a plastic mask over Ramirez’s nose and mouth and was using an Ambu-bag to force air into the lungs. As the syringe filled Kane said she noticed a strange chemical smell that seemed to be coming from the blood. She handed the syringe to Welch and leaned closer to Ramirez in an attempt to determine the source of the smell. Welch sniffed the syringe and determined that it had an ammonia smell. She passed the syringe to medical resident Julie Garchynski. As she examined the blood in the tube she noticed strange yellow particles floating in the blood. Doctor Humberto Ochoa, who was in charge of the emergency room, also examined the Ramierz blood sample.

At this point things began happening to the medical staff. Kane unexpectedly collapsed. She complained that her skin was burning. Later she began kicking her arms and legs uncontrollably. She was placed on a gurney and moved into a nearby trauma room. Next Garzhynski complained of feeling strange, sat in a chair for a moment before slumping to the floor. They said her body was shaking and she stopped breathing. Next Welch fainted. She said that when she woke up again she was unable to control the movements of her limbs.

After Welch went down, several other staff members said they also felt ill. Hospital administrators, not knowing what they were dealing with, declared an internal emergency. Dr. Ochoa ordered the staff to evacuate all of the emergency room patients to a parking lot outside the hospital. A skeleton crew remained behind to help Ochoa in an effort to save Ramirez. But their efforts failed and she was pronounced dead at 8:50 p.m. The body was removed to an isolation room.

Sally Balderas, who helped move Ramierz’s body to the isolation room, was the next victim. She began retching and complained of a burning sensation on her skin.

Hospital workers already were suspecting that they were being attacked by a noxious chemical. Everybody stripped down to their underwear and their clothes were bundled into plastic bags.

Before it was over, 23 or the 37 emergency room workers were stricken with some kind of attack. Five were hospitalized. Balderas remained in the hospital suffering from apnea for the next 10 days. Gorchynski suffered the most severe attack. She suffered from hepatitis, pancreatitis, a chronic bone disease that restricted her to crutches for months.

The mystery of what toxin Ramirez brought into that hospital emergency room with her on the night she died has plagued experts ever since. The phenomenon was so sensational it made news headlines for weeks. It also triggered one of the most extensive investigations in forensic history. Medical experts from ten different labs poured over the body, tested the body fluids, examined all of the medications and chemicals found there.

The researchers traced everything from poison gases to mass hysteria. Their only conclusion was that some kind of strange chain of chemical reactions that night turned Ramirez’s body into a canister of toxic gas. There were various complex theories, but to this day, no one has determined what happened.

Among the oddities: the ambulance staff that brought Ramirez to the hospital was not affected. Some, but not all of the emergency room staff that came in direct contact with Ramirez were stricken. Whatever occurred appeared to have been linked to the blood draw and the strange smells that came from Ramirez at that moment.