The 13th Floor

The Bizarre, Unsolved Story of the Toxic Lady of Riverside, California

People who work in emergency rooms can tell you some crazy stories about what they’ve seen come through the door. To most ER doctors and nurses, the daily parade of illnesses and injures blend together into an easily forgettable conglomeration of work. But Riverside General Hospital in Riverside, California will probably never forget when Gloria Ramirez, who would be later dubbed “the Toxic Lady”, showed up at their hospital on February 19th, 1994.

Gloria Ramirez suffered from advanced cervical cancer. Around 8:15pm, an ambulance brought her to the emergency room at Riverside General. Confused and disoriented, she was showing signs of tachycardia (elevated heartbeat) and Cheyne-stokes respiration (progressively deeper and faster breathing). The medical staff first tried to sedate her. Ramirez was unresponsive to treatment. Doctors attempted to defibrillate her heart, and it was then that they noticed an oily sheen on Ramirez’s skin as well as a fruity, garlic-like odor emanating from her mouth. One nurse attempted to draw blood, the result of which was a strong ammonia-like smell which wafted out of the syringe.  A medical resident noticed that there were white-colored particles floating in her blood.

That’s when things really got strange. Soon after drawing blood, one of the nurses fainted. Then the medical resident began feeling nauseous. Complaining that she too was about to faint, the medical resident left the room. The resident sat at the nurse’s station attempting to catch her breath before finally losing consciousness. When a respiratory therapist treating Ramirez also fainted, the staff ordered that the emergency room be evacuated.  Doctors, patients, and nurses headed out to the parking lot while a small group of doctors remained behind to treat Ramirez. In the end twenty-three people became ill that night with five needing to be hospitalized. Ramirez then died 45 minutes later from kidney failure due to her cancer.

 

An investigation immediately following the incident found that those affected the most by toxic fumes released by Ms. Ramirez were within two feet of her, were handling her IV lines, and were mostly women. The initial conclusion reached was that this was a form of mass hysteria. However, the first nurse affected by the toxic fumes claimed that this conclusion was completely ridiculous. The nurse had spent two weeks in the ICU after her exposure to Ms Ramirez and developed hepatitis as well as avascular necrosis in her knees. A further investigation revealed that Ramirez was using dimethyl sulfoxide, a powerful degreaser, as a pain killer. Others who have used this for the same purposes said that is had a garlic-like taste. It also explained the greasy sheen on Ramirez’s skin. Sold as a solid gel, dimethyl sulfoxide is also known to crystalize at room temperature, which explained the particles floating in her blood once it was drawn. Dimethyl sulfoxide can also cause blockages that lead to kidney failure. But it is still unclear how it was released as a gar or created such a massive toxic effect on those around her.

Gloria Ramirez has been the subject of several investigative true crime shows as well as the inspiration for several television episodes from shows like GREY’S ANATOMY and LAW & ORDER. In 1994, the science fiction television series THE X-FILES release an episode entitled THE ERIENMEYER FLASK. In the episode, Mulder and Scully find evidence of alien and human DNA experiments. At one point during the episode, a man being treated by paramedics has blood drawn which releases a toxic gas.

X-Files episode "The Erlenmeyer Flask"
X-Files episode “The Erlenmeyer Flask”

Two months after the incident Ramirez’s body was given back to her family. With not much money, the Ramirez family was forced to hold a yard sale to pay for her funeral. Ten weeks after her death, Gloria Ramirez was buried in an unmarked grave in Olivewood Cemetery.

x