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North Texas Poison Center at Parkland celebrates 40 years of service

North Texas Poison Center at Parkland celebrates 40 years of service

Issues of concern have changed, but mission has not

Countless individuals have been able to breathe a sigh of relief over the past four decades thanks to the assistance they received from specialists at the North Texas Poison Center (NTPC) housed at Parkland Memorial Hospital.

The center averages now more than 217 calls daily, a significant increase from its humble beginnings of about 30 calls a day. Nearly two-thirds are incoming calls to the poison center and the remaining third are follow-up calls from poison specialists to ensure the immediate concern has passed at the home or office of the caller. And while the number of calls has increased, the underlying cause has remained constant with about half related to things your mother told you not to do.

“When the poison center first began operating the majority of calls were from parents who were frantic because their child had gotten into medicine or household products they shouldn’t have,” said Lizbeth Petty, MPH, Public Health Educator Manager at the NTPC. “There have always been ‘look-alike’ medicines and candy which become an easy target for kids.”

But, Petty said, it goes back to what kids put in their mouths – and they can do it in a split second. One such instance involved a mom, a child and a spider.

“There was a mom and her small child in their living room, the child was playing with their toys while the mom read the newspaper. The mom happened to look over on the blinds and saw a spider hanging from the blind, so she got up, rolled up the newspaper and hit the spider which fell down dead. She took a closer look and saw it had a red marking on its belly,” Petty said, recalling a story from the poison center’s past. “That is when she realized it could be a dangerous black widow spider. Because of this, she wanted to ensure it was dead, but did not have any shoes on to step on it. So she went to the next room to get her shoes, and when she came back what do you think her toddler was doing?”

You guessed it – the child had eaten the spider.

“Luckily the mom was familiar with the Poison Hotline and she gave us a call. Our specialists usually know exactly what to tell someone when a dangerous spider has bitten them, but our specialists did not know what to tell the mother when her child was the one that had bitten the dangerous spider! This had never happened before,” Petty said. “Our specialists were able to contact our toxicology consultant physician, who recommended that they rinse the child’s mouth out because it was gross.”

And the outcome?

“Everyone was fine,” Petty said, “well, except for the black widow.”

What has changed over the years is the type of calls the center receives. In decades past, a call could come from a farmer who dipped his cows in the wrong liquid. The solution, center staff offered, was to “wash his herd.” Or the call asking how much gopher bait could kill a cow? “On those we’d phone our Texas A&M University contacts and then relay the information back to the farmer,” Petty said.

Today, the majority of calls we receive are related to prescription drugs and potential overdoses. In 2020, an average of 44 people died each day from overdoses involving prescription opioids, totaling more than 16,000 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 96,700 people die from drug overdoses in a year, according to the National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics (NCDAS). Opioids are a factor in 7 out of every 10 overdose deaths, and drug overdoses have killed almost a million people since 1999.

“We continue to receive calls about children who have gotten into their parents’ or grandparents’ prescription drugs,” Petty said.

What has not changed is the education provided by poison specialists in the center.

Today, as in years past, poison center staff is on the front lines dispelling myths and squelching rumors, whether it is about chemical insecticides used in spraying for West Nile Virus, the effects of synthetic marijuana, questions about COVID-19 vaccinations or the Tylenol scare in the early 1980s when capsules in the Chicago-area were found to be laced with cyanide.

“Public education is one of the most important services the poison center provides,” Petty added. “If you can reach out to children at a young age and stress the importance of poison prevention, it’s something they’ll remember for a lifetime and they’ll pass it on to their children.”

And for others, specialists with the North Texas Poison Center are available 24/7 to answer questions from frantic moms, farmers or anyone else with a poison question by calling 1-800-222-1222.

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