Help—Just a phone call away: Southeast Texas Poison Center at UTMB available 24/7 to educate and save lives

Mar 16, 2017, 10:01 AM by Simone Parker

Southeast Texas Poison Center at UTMB, Galveston employees copy
The Southeast Texas Poison Center at UTMB is a bustling place. The center receives about 120 calls each day about poisonings and toxic exposures from the public and medical health professionals.

“We are proud to have an amazing staff here at UTMB,” said Jean Cleary, Southeast Texas Poison Center director. “Our specialists are trained professionals such as nurses, pharmacists, nurse practitioners and toxicologists.”

The poison center, located near the Emergency Department on UTMB’s Galveston Campus, is one of a network of five regional centers established by the Texas Legislature to provide prevention and emergency treatment information to residents and health care providers.

Specialists respond to calls through the Poison Helpline at 1-800-222-1222, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They answer questions about drugs, chemicals, natural poisons, environmental toxins and public health matters.

Tally Calvert is a certified poison information specialist and has worked at the center for 10 years. She answered more than 5,000 calls in 2016 alone.

“It’s not unusual for me to start the day talking to the emergency room about a patient in a coma or a mom whose child ate non-silica gel,” she said.

Calvert said the types of calls can vary depending on the time of day or season of the year.

“We see a peak in calls in the morning and at night from people who have made medication errors, as well as from people who have attempted suicide by ingesting a poisonous substance,” said Calvert. “Around the holidays, we typically see more children getting into medications because more people, such as grandparents and relatives, are visiting.”

Poisoning is a leading cause of injury-related death in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). CDC research reveals that drugs—both pharmaceutical and illicit—cause the vast majority of poisoning deaths.

Misty Wilcken also is a poison information specialist. She said some calls are quite unique. One memorable call involved an elderly gentleman who had eaten what he thought were peanuts.

“We were able to discern that he had actually eaten a full container of tree nuts his wife had ordered off the internet as an appetite suppressant for weight loss,” she said.

Unfortunately, the call came to the poison center too late; the gentleman did not survive.

Wilcken said that being informed about patient fatalities is the toughest part of her job. It’s one of the main reasons why she and all of her colleagues are working every day to educate people about poison prevention, while also raising awareness about the center’s location in Galveston.

The poison center serves as an emergency treatment resource for people in Texas and all over the world. All calls are toll-free, and each one is recorded. Callers are not required to provide personal information, such as names, ages or addresses, but the recordings can help advance knowledge in the field.

“If needed, we can go back to the information for research and study purposes,” said Wilcken. “For example, if someone takes an overdose of a particular drug, we can review the type and severity of side effects that are expected, which can help determine the best treatments.”

If necessary, specialists can contact trained professionals within the poison center network and physicians for phone consultations to help determine the best treatment for callers. Their top priorities are educating people about poison prevention and helping to save lives every day.

Southeast Texas Poison Center at a glance:

  • In 2016, STPC received more than 44,000 calls.
  • Of those calls, at least 27 (each day) were from emergency medical services, clinics, emergency rooms and other health care providers who needed assistance with diagnosis, monitoring and treatment of poisoned patients.
  • About 66 percent of calls about poisoning exposure are managed at the site of the call, which is usually at home.
  • For every dollar invested in the poison center system, $13.39 is saved in medical costs.
  • To learn more, call 1-800-222-1222 or visit