Patient's sickening fumes still mystery

February 22, 1994|By New York Times News Service

A doctor and two nurses who were apparently poisoned by fumes from a dying woman in a strange medical episode Saturday night are recovering, but no one knows yet what caused their symptoms.

The doctor and nurses became ill while treating a patient in the emergency room of Riverside General Hospital in Riverside, Calif. Medical experts are baffled over how the patient, Gloria Ramirez of Riverside, appears to have emitted toxic fumes.

Ms. Ramirez, who was 31, was being treated for ovarian cancer. She arrived at the hospital semiconscious, after her fiance called an ambulance, and then went into cardiac arrest.

The apparent poisoning occurred when Dr. Julie Gorchinski and two nurses, Sally Balderas and Susan Kane, drew blood from Ms. Ramirez. Dr. Humberto Ochoa, the attending physician in the emergency room, told The Press-Enterprise of Riverside County that Ms. Ramirez' blood contained white crystals and that she emitted fumes that smelled like ammonia. The symptoms suffered by the three medical workers resembled poisoning by a deadly class of chemicals, organophosphates.

The hospital evacuated its emergency room at 8:30 Saturday night, treating patients in the parking lot while hazardous materials handlers tested the air for dangerous gases.

Dr. Gorchinski, who is being treated at Loma Linda Medical Center, "is feeling much better," said Dick Shaefer, a spokesman. The two nurses are also much improved. But the mystery remains. What made these people ill?

As the investigation continues, medical experts are seeking to learn why the ambulance attendants were not affected and exactly where the fumes came from, including the possibility that they could have come from vents in the hospital.

Although Ms. Ramirez had recently received chemotherapy, that could not have caused the poisoning, said Dr. Bruce Chabner, director of the division of cancer treatment at the National Cancer Institute.

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