Emergency rooms are the flash points of human entropy, constantly highlighting our perennial gift for causing unnatural harm to ourselves and others. They are also an endless font of stories, as proven by the numberless television shows staged on their large-cast sets and filmed at their heart attack pace. Most of their victims are just unfortunates beset by bad luck, bad decisions, or bad genes. A select few outliers linger in the mind, becoming folklore and an omen of all the nameless things still hiding out there and looking to kill us.
One such tall tale is known as the Toxic Lady. You would be forgiven for thinking it exaggerated. Only it’s entirely true.
Gloria Ramirez was admitted to the Riverside General Hospital on February 19, 1994 with an accelerated heart rate, hysterical breathing, and profound confusion. Initially, these symptoms were attributed to her cervical cancer but after she failed to respond to three different kinds of sedatives, nurses were forced to defibrillate her heart. While doing this they noticed two strange details: Gloria’s body was covered with an oily sheen and a fruity, garlic odor was coming from her mouth. One nurse drew some blood and said it smelled like ammonia; she then promptly fainted when the medical resident on duty noticed weird particles floating in the vial. Moments later the resident also grew ill, left the room, and fainted. When a respiratory therapist in the room also dropped, the hospital was evacuated. All told, 23 people became ill and 5 were hospitalized.
Gloria Ramirez died later that night of kidney failure.
An internal investigation deduced no definite cause and concluded the staff had suffered from mass hysteria.
Several of the afflicted staff disagreed and enlisted the help of researchers from the Lawrence Livermore National Labratory. Scientists there ultimately proposed a crazy but brilliant theory: Ramirez must have used a hardware store degreasing solvent containing dimethyl sulfoxide as a cheap topical balm. This explained her oily skin and the garlic smell. Her body couldn’t process it because of her kidney failure, and she used so much it stayed in her bloodstream, combined with the oxygen the nurses were administering, and formed dimethly sulfone. When her blood sample dropped from body temp to room temp the dimethyl sulfone crystallized and the electric shocks from the defibrillator turned the crystals into dimethyl sulfate, a powerful poison gas.
Despite an inconclusive autopsy and the many criticisms put forward that poke holes in this chain of improbabilities, it remains the only proposed and peer-reviewed explanation.