By Jody DiPerna
Pittsburgh Current Lit Writer
Pittsburgh has given many gifts to the world, from Mr. Rogers to August Wilson, Annie Dillard to Andy Warhol. Just as important, is the gift of Mr. Yuk, the iconic green face indicating toxic danger, introduced in 1971 by Pittsburgh pediatrician Dr. Richard Moriarty when he ran the Pittsburgh Poison Center.
In the nearly 50 years since Mr. Yuk started his vital work warning kids not to drink the Drano, the Pittsburgh Poison Center is still saving lives and soothing anxieties, as personal and responsive as ever. At a moment of crisis and complete panic, this human lifeline is a gift.
What if you accidentally took your dog’s heart medicine at the end of an exhausting day? Or your toddler just ate an entire tube of cortisone cream meant for your poison ivy? Maybe your grandfather is not as expert at mushroom foraging as he thought and he’s eaten something dubious?
Call the poison center. No, really. Call them on the phone, like in the old days.
“We were tele-medicine before there was tele-medicine. At a time when there are a lot of questions about chemicals and disinfectants and medications that may or may not work, this is exactly what we do,” Michael Lynch, MD, medical toxicologist and the director of the Pittsburgh Poison Center, told the Current.
“When people call, one of the things we’ll have them do is read the label to us. We take the time to make sure we know exactly what the product is, so we know exactly what your scenario is. What did you take? How much of it? How old is the product? We can give you an answer specific to your situation.”
The voice on the other end of the line in that critical moment is a nurse, one with emergency department or intensive care experience, who is additionally trained and certified in toxicology. They have answers at their fingertips.
There is no time wasted bungling around in the dark, so most calls are short and only a few (5 or 6 percent) are referred to the hospital. The information is out there on the internet, but civilians don’t have the skill-set or knowledge to replicate what a trained toxicology nurse can do. They can analyze a boatload of information quickly. Just as importantly, ER and ICU nurses stay calm in a crisis.
If you wanted to design a medical response unit built for the coronavirus pandemic, you couldn’t do much better than one where you don’t have to go anywhere and you can get situation specific, tailored, expert information at no cost.
“Right now, there is fear, there is anxiety. There is a lot of uncertainty, which is natural,” Lynch noted. “Having a resource available — legitimate and trained to answer those questions — is important now more than ever.”
The world is a dangerous, sometimes deadly place, but poison centers didn’t spring up until man-made dangers became ubiquitous. The first poison center started in Chicago in the early 1950’s, as more people began using chemical products to clean their homes.
Pittsburgh’s poison center started in the 1960’s working out of Children’s Hospital. As Dr. Moriarty fielded more and more calls about household disinfectants, he identified the need for a better warning system.
“There were kids I knew growing up in Natrona who drank Drano and burned their esophagus, they burned their mouths and eyes,” Rita Kaniecki Stanko recalled. A retired CRNA who spent 37 years working as a nurse anesthetist, Stanko crossed paths with Moriarty when she was still a student nurse.
Through trial and error, and then by using a dedicated focus group, Mr. Yuk was born. One way Moriarty’s classic green stickers made their way to families was through local fire departments and Stanko laughs that her main role back then was gopher.
“It was so minor — I ran stickers around, taking buses to fire departments,” she laughed, but she is proud of that work, noting that Mr. Yuk is still effective and still saving lives.
The number below Mr. Yuk’s frowning mouth is a national number that can reach one of the fifty-five poison centers nationwide, based on area code. If you’re in Western Pennsylvania, you’ll get Dr. Lynch’s Pittsburgh crew, but no matter where you are, you’ll get an experienced, calm voice at the other end of the line.
“There are a lot of sources of dubious information available from many different sectors. We can be very clear: people should not ingest, inhale or inject any disinfectants of any kind. Outside of what is specifically recommended, disinfectants should not be used in any new or different ways, or in any way placed inside the body. Now or ever,” Lynch said.
Good rule of thumb — if you store it under the kitchen sink, don’t put it in your body, no matter what anybody tells you. However, if you do, call 1-800-222-1222 and somebody will be there to help.