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Maryland Poison Center Celebrates 50 Years of Service

From gasoline ingestions, to anthrax, to laundry packets, help has been a call away for five decades.

Bruce Anderson speaks at the podium at the Maryland Poison Center's 50th anniversary.

By Mary Therese Phelan
November 9, 2022

From using paper records and operating out of a basement of a building that is no longer on the University of Maryland, Baltimore (UMB) campus, to becoming a thriving solution-providing center, the Maryland Poison Center’s (MPC) five decades of service were celebrated on Oct. 19 with a reception and reflections on its storied history and influence.

“Today is a celebration of 50 years of the Maryland Poison Center at the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy [UMSOP],” said Natalie D. Eddington, PhD, FAAPS, FCP, UMSOP dean and professor, as she welcomed current and former MPC staff, faculty, retirees, collaborators, local health officials, and UMB leadership to the celebration in Pharmacy Hall. MPC has been a free public service through UMSOP since 1972.

“That’s 50 years of serving the citizens of the state and managing poisoning or overdose emergencies,” Eddington said. “That’s 50 years of working with health care professionals to educate them on best practices in poisoning care. And that’s 50 years of educating the public about poison safety. I am tremendously proud of the impact the Maryland Poison Center has in our state and proud that it is part of the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy community.”

When MPC joined UMSOP, it operated out of the basement of Dunning Hall, a UMB building that no longer exists. The center was staffed by one person answering phones during the day and pharmacy and medical students who shared the responsibility during the evening and overnight hours. Call volume was around 10,000 annually.

Today, MPC operates out of a suite of offices in the Saratoga Building and manages more than 37,000 cases a year. MPC, which can be reached by dialing 1-800-222-1222, has answered about 2.5 million calls over the last 50 years from Marylanders dealing with a poisoning emergency. Serving 4.1 million Marylanders in 21 counties and Baltimore City, MPC is staffed 24 hours a day, 365 days a year by pharmacists and nurses who are certified specialists in poison information (CSPI).

CSPIs manage calls from anxious and scared Marylanders concerned about exposures to household products, medication mix-ups, snake and spider bites, and plant or chemical exposures in the home and workplace, Eddington said. They also receive calls from first responders, emergency room staff, primary care physicians, school nurses, and others.

“The MPC specialists address each caller with the utmost respect and top-tier knowledge,” Eddington said.

From a child ingesting cleaning products to an elderly woman accidentally taking two doses of blood pressure medicine at once, to dogs eating prenatal vitamins, people calling MPC for help are sure to receive a dose of calm and comfort on the other end of the line, said Jill A. Morgan, PharmD, BCPS, BCPPS, FNAP, professor and chair, Department of Practice, Sciences, and Health Outcomes Research (P-SHOR).

“We are lucky to have a poison center that has specially trained professionals to handle these situations and much scarier ones,” she said. In addition to helping manage poisonings and overdoses around the clock, MPC provides education to health care providers and the community, saving health care dollars.

“The MPC is a service you hope to never need and are so relieved to find the experts there when you do,” Morgan said.

UMB President Bruce E. Jarrell, MD, FACS, shared how he knows firsthand of a poison center’s value based on the days he was chair of surgery at the University of Arizona. Its poison center came under his department.

“I learned a lot about toxicology, about the kinds of things that the poison center experts had to deal with,” he said. Whether it was a person stung by a scorpion, bitten by a rattlesnake or chomped on by a venomous Gila monster, Jarrell and his medical colleagues would turn to the poison center for answers.

“It was amazing. I take my hat off to them about the level of expertise and knowledge they had about these at-times obscure things that most of us physicians, emergency room, doctors, etc., didn’t have a clue about,” Jarrell said.

MPC also analyzes cases in real time for trends and events that might be of public health significance, such as food poisoning, product recalls, and potential terrorism. In addition to CSPIs, the center’s staff consists of directors, a medical director, board-certified clinical toxicologists, toxicology fellows, health educators, information technology support, and administrative staff.

While the free 24/7 telephone service is vital and what it’s most known for, the center conducts other activities as well. Education of the public and health care students and professionals is another important service provided by MPC, which also conducts research to learn more about poisoning and overdose cases happening in its service area and beyond.

Gary Oderda, PharmD, MPH, professor and director, Utah Medicaid Drug Regimen Review Center, and director, Pharmacotherapy Outcomes Research Center, University of Utah College of Pharmacy, was the first director of MPC, starting in 1973 with one employee, until his retirement in 1991.

“We had great people who were able to do their jobs, who were committed to making the poison center a better place,” Oderda said. “And it became one of the excellent poison centers in the country.”

Reflecting on the center’s golden anniversary, MPC’s current executive director, Bruce D. Anderson, PharmD, DABAT, FACCT, professor of P-SHOR, said, “It is remarkable. A half-century of service is just stunning to think about. It’s hard to wrap your head around.”

He credited then-UMSOP Dean William J. Kinnard Jr., PhD, for playing an instrumental role in MPC’s creation after centralizing nine poison centers into one location.

“Having the vision and the wherewithal to be able to say, ‘Yes, it should be here. It should be separate from the hospital. It should be independent,’ was a very wise move at the time,” Anderson said.

Oderda and the early staff at the poison center had to figure how a centralized poison center should operate, Anderson said.

“There was no manual. There was nobody to call. There was no resource that you could go to be able to say, ‘Oh, this is how you build a poison center and run a poison center.’ It didn’t exist,” he said. “Those are the folks who were instrumental in helping actually get the nuts and bolts of the poison center going.”

Across the decades, staffers shared one thing in common: not knowing what situation awaited them once they picked up the phone.

“It could be the mom with a little kid at home who was helping with laundry and just ate the Tide pod. Or it could be somebody calling about their elderly parent who may have mistaken their medications and taken three days’ worth of therapy at one time,” Anderson said.

“We get all kinds of calls, and we deal with all different kinds of problems. And the poison specialists do it with aplomb. So, thank you for everything that you guys do. And here’s to another 50!”

Other guest speakers included Cyndy Wright-Johnson, MSN, RN, director, EMS for Children, and chair, Safe Kids Maryland and Maryland Risk Watch, Maryland Institute for Emergency Medical Services Systems, and Wendy Klein-Schwartz, PharmD, MPH, FACCT, professor emeritus of P-SHOR.

The MPC hosted a series of educational webinars for the public and health care professionals in celebration of its anniversary year. 

Listen to “The UMB Pulse” podcast’s episode about MPC’s 50th anniversary.

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