200-Pound Tumor At-Large?
What happened inside a Tarzana surgery room March 27 has officials looking the other way and neighbors growing increasingly on edge

By Cabot Halloway, Times Staff Writer

Tarzana — In the wake of a bizarre incident that occurred the evening of March 27 at the Burroughs Memorial Wing of the Rice Regional Medical Clinic in Tarzana that left one woman dead and a community in panic, police and clinic officials remain tight-lipped — as much at a loss for words as they are for an explanation of what actually happened.

AdBut a preliminary report obtained yesterday from sources inside the clinic has shed at least some light on the details.

According to the memo written by clinic director Kate McCorkingdale, At 2:47 p.m., a female — an Encino resident 37 years of age, of average height and weighing in excess of 350 pounds — arrived at the medical clinic complaining of extreme lower abdominal pain. Following an examination, ultrasonography and a CT scan, a "dermoid tumor of abnormal size was detected."

"In a great amount of pain, though coherent," the report states, "the woman charted a history of an uncontrollable weight gain that began in the summer of 1991 and has continued steadily, in spite of numerous diets and medical consultations."

Diagnosing the tumor as an immediate and dangerous risk to the woman’s health and recommending immediate surgery, McCorkingdale concludes the report on a note of exasperation.

"How this could have gone undetected for so long is beyond the realm of my understanding," she wrote.

Other than terse statements released from officials in the aftermath of the incident, little light was shed on the events that transpired during and after the resultant surgery.

Until now.

Eyewitness accounts from inside Surgery Room No. 1 and out, yield a story that could be something straight out of a horror movie.

"It was like something out of ‘Alien,’" said anesthesiologist Jerry Rothmein. "Everything was going fine until the doctor cut the woman open."

The team assembled in Surgery Room No. 1 to perform the operation had examined the X-rays together a few minutes earlier. Surgery Chief Jane Quinson not only echoed McCorkingdale’s disbelief at letting such a condition go untreated for so long, she also expressed concern at the size of the tumor.

"I estimated it to be as large or larger than the tumor removed from a woman at the Stanford University Medical Center in 1996. Two hundred pounds — easy."

That growth, notable for the coverage it garnered by the television news program "Hard Copy," as well as its listing as largest tumor in the "Guinness Book of World Records," weighed 185 pounds. But for its record mass, it was nothing more than a benign intumescence.

Dermoid tumors are another matter entirely, Congenital in nature, dermoids consist largely of tissues of ectodermal origin such as skin, hair and teeth. Though almost exclusively benign and most often found in women, a "breed" of parasitic dermoid has recently been discovered. What separates parasitic dermoids is evidence that they detach and reattach.

"I’ve read of autoamputation and reimplantation of certain dermoids," Quinson said, "but most of the documentation on that subject originates from universities in the Middle East and, to be honest, is just not taken very seriously by the medical establishment here in the U.S."

Any documentation about living dermoids?

"Look," Quinson said, "I’m still in something of a state of shock at what happened — to the point where I’d almost still deny the existence of such a creature. But the reality is something was living off this woman and when we went to remove it, it escaped. When we opened her up, the tumor just exploded out of her — as if it had been waiting all this time for a chance."

Clinic orderly Jo Galindo not only witnessed the escape, but was one of the last to see the dermoid.

"It scared the hell out of me," he said. "Whatever it was, it busted through the doors of Surgery Room No. 1 and rolled right past me down the corridor and around the corner."

After the dermoid disappeared around the corner at the end of the corridor, Galindo chased after it and heard the sensored front doors slide open. But by the time he got outside the clinic, the creature was gone.

"It was as if it disappeared into thin air."

Inside, Quinson, Rothmein and the rest of the surgical team, though in shock at what they had just seen, were frantically trying to keep the woman alive, to no avail. She was pronounced dead at 7:15 p.m.
Rothheim recalled the scene.

"It was pure chaos. Jane had barely made the initial cut when this, this... thing, began pushing itself out of the patient. In no time at all it was on the floor where it sat for a few seconds. It was huge — at least 200 pounds. Then it began to, to... pulsate. Then it started to move. That’s when I heard a scream — and it was coming from me."

Quinson was equally afraid, but after the creature pushed through the surgery room’s double doors, the drawn-out tone from the EKG brought her attention back to the patient. Her patient had flatlined. Working feverishly to restore her heartbeat, Quinson could not help but see the state of the woman laying on the table before her.

"It was if she had been blown open and deflated. There was nothing that could be done."

An autopsy is scheduled to be performed April 2. In the aftermath, made more harrowing by thoughts that the tumor was now at large in the community, Rothmein placed an emergency call to the police, who received the call with what the anesthesiologist called "open contempt."

When I told the desk officer what had happened, he suggested that I call Sculley and Mulder," (referring to the characters from the television series "X-Files").

According to the police report, a Sgt. Peter Tippen did arrive at the clinic at 7:47 p.m. and noted a bloody, slimy trail that extended from the surgery room down the corridor out the emergency room entrance, and across the parking lot in a zig-zag pattern. The trail comes to an end at the mouth of a drainage ditch leading to the city sewer system beneath the community.

"Being close to April Fool's Day, I have to admit my first thought when I took the call over the radio was that this whole thing was a hoax." Tippen said. "But when I saw the trail and then the body of the woman on the surgery table, I changed my tune immediately."

Radioing in for back-up, he set about documenting the scene.

"The amount of blood was phenomenal — it was on the ceiling... dripping from the lamps," he said. "And the poor woman. In my 13 years on the force I’ve never seen anything like it. The only saving grace was that —hopefully — she didn’t feel a thing."

Other than the psychological effects felt by the surgical team — Quinson is set to begin a month’s vacation next week — the Rice Clinic has returned to business as usual.
The on-site investigation wrapped a day after the incident, an internal probe of the clinic and its procedures unearthed no improprieties, and an above- and below-ground search of a five-square mile area of the community yielded up no creature.

But the dermoid is still out there — just ask Gladdys Wright of Encino, who claims the dermoid snatched and killed Misty, her pet terrier during a late-night walk down Lindley Avenue near Oxnard Boulevard, March 30.

"All of a sudden Misty just started barking like crazy," Wright said. "Then she pulled the leash out of my hand and ran into the gutter where she stood barking down into the sewer." Then, to the 68-year-old Wright’s terror, she said she saw a "dark round form" slide up from out of the sewer entrance, "engulf" her beloved companion of nine years, and disappear back down where it had come from.

"It was horrible. This beast, all hair and teeth just sort of poured out of the gutter and ate my dog."

Wright’s screams alerted neighbors who phoned the police who noted an accumulation of hair and mucus-like material at the mouth of the gutter. A subsequent search of the underground vicinity, conducted by police and city investigators yielded no sign of the creature — or Misty. Their conclusion was that Misty fell or jumped into the sewer and was swept away. But residents remain on guard and unconvinced by assertions that the creature could in no way survive on its own.

"This is a case of an internal parasite, not some carnivorous beast," said Ross Sieba, a professor at UCLA who has spent years researching symbiotic relationships.

"Separated from its host," a parasite can do nothing but find another host. And with a parasite of this size, that’s not going to happen."

The only option is for the thing to die, Sieba said.

"And how long will that take?" asked Gene Weaver, a Tarzana resident who lives about a block from the Rice Clinic. "In the meantime, I’m jumping at every creak of a floorboard and burning every light in the house."

Even Sgt. Tippen is wary of the way the city has dismissed calls for further investigation.

"They may attribute it to paranoia," he said, referring to the number of dermoid sightings — 72 — phoned in to the police since Misty’s disappearance, "but it’s tough to believe that all of them are false."

Quinson is more adamant.

"What will it take to get the city off its ass and into an investigative mode? I was there at ground zero. I saw the destruction this thing created. I caught a piece of the beast in my forceps. The damn thing rolled over my foot on its way out the door like it knew where it was going!

"They think it’ll just die in the sewer and wash away? I say it’s only a matter of time before another pet is gone — or worse!— maybe a child! Maybe then they’ll wake up realize they’re dealing with something that is truly a threat to the community — very much like Blogging.la's Will Campbell when he decides to do some sort of April Fool's Day hoax thing."