No clues yet in emergency room sickness

April 14, 1994|By Los Angeles Times

RIVERSIDE, Calif. -- The mystery fumes are still extracting their toll. The unidentified poison that sickened the emergency room staff at Riverside General Hospital nearly eight weeks ago still won't loosen its grasp on Dr. Julie Gorchynski and nurse Sally Balderas.

The 33-year-old doctor underwent surgery yesterday to try to save her knees. The bones inside the joints are literally dying for lack of blood circulation, she said -- a condition that Dr. Gorchynski blames on whatever happened that night in February that afflicted her and five other emergency room workers.

Whether doctors can restore the circulation to her knees or end up having to install artificial joints is just one legacy of this baffling medical mystery. During her first hospital stay, Dr. Gorchynski suffered from chest-seizing muscle spasms and breathing lapses that necessitated use of a respirator.

Even now, she is not sure if she will ever breathe normally again, because the mystery agent that invaded her body caused restrictive lung disease. She has not been able to draw a full breath since Feb. 19, she said, and the condition is permanent.

"I'm frustrated," said Dr. Gorchynski, who returned to work April 1 for just a week before the pain in her knees became so excruciating that she had to go back home, and now she can only walk on crutches. "We still don't know what those chemicals were, and we can't foresee these kinds of complications."

Sally Balderas remains off work, too, her own body wracked by conditions from the same mystery fumes.

She has pounding headaches and often doubles up from abdominal pain. She still throws up. She cannot sleep for more than an hour or so at a time -- and when she does doze off, her mother, father and husband take turns watching over her.

Like Dr. Gorchynski, Ms. Balderas became afflicted with the potentially fatal sleeping disorder apnea.

"Nobody knows anything," Ms. Balderas said, sounding tired and resigned. "It's so frustrating still not knowing what happened."

Dr. Gorchynski and Ms. Balderas were the two most seriously injured by the mystery fumes the night that cancer patient Gloria Ramirez, a 31-year-old mother of two, was wheeled into Riverside General, herself complaining of nausea and breathing difficulties. In cardiac arrest, she died 36 minutes later.

Some of those who tended to Ms. Ramirez said her blood, drawn into a syringe, had a foul smell that sickened them. A couple of people said the blood smelled like ammonia. One doctor said it seemed to contain white crystals; another doctor said he noted yellow specks.

One witness said Ms. Ramirez's skin looked oily.

Two doctors, two nurses and two respiratory therapists fell sick. Some just got dizzy. Others collapsed outright, including Dr. Gorchynski, who was hospitalized for two weeks, and Ms. Balderas, who was hospitalized for 10 days.

Nearly eight weeks later, authorities say they still are not sure what happened, despite an unprecedented autopsy of Ms. Ramirez's body to determine whether she was the source of the toxin or was herself a victim of the same poison that affected the others.

So far, there are no answers.

"This is clearly one of the most complex cases, if not the most complex case, we've ever faced in this county," said Tom DeSantis, the Riverside County government's public information officer who has served as spokesman for all the county agencies involved in the case, including the county-operated hospital.

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