The autopsy of a woman who apparently contaminated a hospital emergency room last Saturday, injuring six medical personnel, has been postponed until at least this evening while investigators procure full hazardous material gear for protection, the Riverside County coroner's office said Wednesday.
The body, double-bagged and sealed in an aluminum case, is being stored in a refrigerated room while preparations are being made.
Meanwhile, the team is searching for other clues to explain the bizarre incident in which Gloria Ramirez, a 31-year-old cancer patient, was brought into the emergency room of Riverside General Hospital suffering a heart attack. While she was being unsuccessfully treated, fumes apparently emanating from her body overcame a doctor and five nurses.
Dr. Julie Gorchinski, the most seriously injured, remained hospitalized Wednesday in fair condition at Loma Linda University Medical Center, hospital spokeswoman Anita Rockwell said. Physicians hoped to wean her from a respirator Wednesday evening, Rockwell said, but a similar attempt the night before proved unsuccessful.
Gorchinski's muscles have not completely relaxed since the incident and she has had periodic, mild spasms.
Blood tests have shown that Gorchinksi was exposed to a chemical in the organophosphate family, which includes the primary ingredients of nerve gas and many pesticides. She is expected to recover.
Nurse Sally Balderas is expected to be released from Parkview Community Hospital in Riverside by the weekend. Four other nurses were treated and released.
Loma Linda officials also issued a clarification Wednesday of Ramirez's medical history. Rockwell said Ramirez was first examined at Loma Linda on Feb. 9 for a "previously diagnosed" advanced cancer of the cervix--not ovarian cancer, as had been reported.
Ramirez received neither radiation nor chemotherapy at Loma Linda, Rockwell said, and treatment plans for her did not include chemotherapy. It was not clear Wednesday what treatment she may have received elsewhere.
In addition to procuring the special safety outfits--"Level A" gear, the highest level of protection available to hazardous materials workers--authorities at the coroner's office were contacting other agencies to ensure that all necessary precautions will be taken, a spokeswoman said.
The autopsy was scheduled for after 6 p.m. today in a special isolation room at the Riverside County morgue usually used for subjects with infectious diseases or chemical exposures.
Although the use of hazardous materials gear is unusual, autopsies of contaminated or infected subjects are not, said Scott Carrier of the Los Angeles County coroner's office. Bodies contaminated with chemicals, HIV and other infectious diseases "are occupational hazards that you deal with at the coroner's office," he said.
One alternative to the use of special gear, he said, would be the use of a commercially available plastic pouch that would completely encase the body, allowing investigators to work on it through built-in gloves.