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Unusual Deaths #4: The Toxic Lady

February 19, 1994, Gloria Ramirez was rushed into an emergency room at approximately 8:15. Suffering from an advanced case of cervical cancer, she was delirious and her heart rate had dipped far below the sixty beats-per-minute a person needs to stay alive. Her breaths came at an irregular pace: she let out a series progressively deeper gasps that slowly decreased until they stopped altogether, after which the sequence started again (an aberration called Cheyne-Stokes respiration that often heralds imminent heart failure). The hospital staff followed regular procedure, and shot sedatives into her arm, along with drugs that would keep her heart pumping. It didn’t work and her condition worsened.

The staff saw their only option was the defibrillator. As soon as they shocked her, “… several people saw an oily sheen covering Ramirez’s body…” and a few people close to her picked up a strange, fruity smell akin to garlic coming from the patient’s mouth. Susan Kane, one of the nurses on duty, began to draw blood from Ramirez and noticed that the tube stank of ammonia.

She handed the full syringe to doctor Julie Gorchynski, another member of the staff. She looked closely at the blood and saw manila-colored particles suspended in the otherwise normal sample. Then Kane collapsed on the emergency room floor. Personal removed her immediately, but a few moments later Dr. Gorchynski felt ill.

Nausea had set in, and she left the trauma room of her own volition. She sat down outside and a colleague asked her if she was okay. Dr. Gorchynski didn’t respond. She had fainted, just like Kane. Another member of the crew in the trauma room, Maureen Welch, fell to the ground. The hospital evacuated everyone in the emergency room to a nearby parking lot, while a few staff members tried to stabilize Ramirez. They pronounced her dead at 8:50 PM, due to complications with her cancer.

23 of the 37 people in the trauma room suffered from some form of lightheadedness and nausea. Five were kept in the hospital overnight, and Dr. Gorchynski wouldn’t be released from intensive care for another two weeks. She was a mess; her liver was inflamed, her pancreas was in critical condition and her kneels developed a case of avascular necrosis, meaning they had been so severely deprived of oxygen that the bone tissue had begun to die. Dr. Gorchynski couldn’t walk for months.

An investigative team went into the room at 11 PM, but they failed to find any evidence of whatever toxin had caused the blackouts. The coroner’s autopsy got similarly unspectacular results. His office turned the samples over to Forensic Science Center. There, researchers began to make headway. They found high levels of dimethyl sulfoxide, DMSO for short, in Rameriz’s blood. DMSO is quick and harmlessly absorbed into the skin, and is regarded as an efficient delivery system for certain medicines. It was once even considered an excellent way to treat athletes injuries, though it lost popularity once tests found eye damage in animal subjects who used it too frequently. It also makes the mouth smell of garlic, even if applied topically.

It is not, however, deadly. Forensic researchers continued to dig through old papers, and found that if two oxygen atoms are added to DMSO, it becomes (CH3)2SO4, a scentless chemical that can enter the body through the lungs or skin, killing cells on contact, though it can take hours before the victim exhibits any symptoms. The center’s published account hypothesized that Gloria Ramirez had been using copious amounts of DMSO as a pain reliever, and it became DMSO2 when hospital staff gave her oxygen. Then, a sudden charge in internal conditions (potentially the electric shock from the defibrillator), excited the dormant DMSO2, converting it into the toxic (CH3)2SO4, and poisoned the medical staff.

Though the original report had its detractors, the Forensic Science Center’s report has been slowly embraced by the scientific community, and even appears in some textbooks as a landmark example of scientific detective work. As for the laymen, it serves as a reminder that the chemicals in his body are just a few bonds and a quick raise in temperature away from becoming a ball of flame.

By Matt Alberswerth

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