A parent pours out a cup of bleach, preparing to add it to the wash. The phone rings and the parent leaves to answer it. A child reaches up for cup of the clear liquid.
We’ll let poison center Managing Director Debbie Anderson take over from here:
“A child takes a swig [and] they immediately throw up. So, what do parents do? They panic; they call 911.”
Anderson said that call would be patched through to her call center in HCMC, where a staff of specially trained pharmacists and pharmacy students take calls 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The staffer would assure the parent vomiting was “exactly what we would expect,” inform her that the situation is probably not serious and offer to call back in an hour to check on other symptoms, she said.
One of 61 similar call banks in the country, the Hennepin Regional Poison Center takes all calls to the national poison center hotline (800)-222-1222 from Minnesota and the Dakotas.
“Our job is to gather the history of your exposure, make an assessment and the provide some treatment,” she said
The exposures vary widely, to everything from prescription medication to illegal drugs to gasoline splashed in the eyes of a customer at a filling station. Physicians call too, often to get information on exposure to a rare or unusual toxin, or to verify a course of treatment.
Anderson said the vast majority of calls — about 85 percent —are managed over the phone and do not end in an emergency room visit, like the hypothetical bleach incident. That both saves valuable health care resources and prevents emergency room overcrowding, she said.
The center is also a vital educational resource for both the public and the area’s first responders.
Center educator Kirk Hughes runs their educational programs for fire fighters, police and emergency medical technicians. A former firefighter with a unique qualification for his job (he had his stomach pumped twice by the time he was two years old), Hughes will also take calls in emergencies, as he did recently when a trailer containing arsenic started on fire.
That might sound unusual, but it’s everyday work in the poison center.
Of their work, Anderson said: “It’s pretty much any situation you can think of, as well as some you would never dream of.”