Behind the Badge: Poison Control Nurse Andre Berkin

Poison control nurse Andre Berkin at his desk, talking with a patient on the phone
Blue Ridge Poison Center nurse Andre Berkin answers a patient’s call.

A few years ago, poison control centers around the country began noticing a trend. Worried parents were calling because their kids had ingested laundry detergent pods, which can look like candy. Occasionally, small kids try liquid detergent, and that usually doesn’t cause any major problems, but the pods were making them really sick. In some cases, they had to be hospitalized.

Because all poison centers enter information into a shared national database, they were able to track the frequency and severity of these cases — 7,700 in 2012, according to Consumer Reports and PBS.

The numbers attracted national headlines and made parents more aware of the problem. Detergent pod manufacturers began implementing child-resistant containers and other safety measures. (Unfortunately, this didn’t stop a few dozen teenagers from attempting the Tide Pod Challenge earlier this year.)

Andre Berkin, a poison control nurse at UVA’s Blue Ridge Poison Center, uses this as an example of how poison centers can influence product packaging and marketing. Berkin has worked for the poison center since 2005. He’s taken and passed his poison information certification exam three times. But he says he’s “learning stuff all the time,” and loves how “I get to use my brain.”

Our Local Poison Center

UVA’s Blue Ridge Poison Center is one of three poison centers in Virginia. It helps people and healthcare providers in much of central, western and southwest Virginia. But you don’t need to worry about calling the right place, because if you call 800.222.1222, you’ll get your local poison control center, regardless of where you are.

40 Years of Helping Virginia

The Poison Center is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. Learn more about who we are and what we do (PDF).

What Does a Poison Control Nurse Do?

Unlike most nursing jobs, Berkin never sees his patients in person. He shares an office with the poison center’s other nurses, a black widow sculpture looming over his desk, which fits with the poison center’s other decor. The center has 10 nurses altogether, who work in shifts to ensure 24/7 coverage.

They don’t just speak to patients — the nurses also offer poisoning expertise to medical providers. In any given shift, Berkin might speak to:

  • The parent of a child who opened his brother’s amoxicillin and drank it
  • A student who’s feeling sick after drinking three energy drinks
  • An intensive care unit nurse treating someone who intentionally overdosed on medicine
  • An emergency medical technician responding to a copperhead bite

During a typical call, Berkin draws on his extensive toxicology knowledge to determine the amount of the substance in the person’s body, the possible harm and the best treatment. He also has access to a database detailing ingredient information about tens of thousands of different products, from every type of Listerine to instant coffee.

They also get sensitive calls: Suicide attempts, alcohol and illicit drug overdoses, drug-facilitated sexual assaults. Poison centers don’t require callers to give their names, and they don’t report such calls to law enforcement.

Common Poisoning Misconceptions

Watch a movie, and you’ll think vomiting is the best thing to do after an overdose. But poison center nurses almost never advise people to induce vomiting. Believe it or not, throwing up just doesn’t help, Berkin says.

Additionally, we tend to assume some substances are worse than they are. For example, the bags of silica gel that sometimes come in the packaging of new products. The labels say “do not eat” because they’re not food, Berkin says — not because they could poison you. In that small amount, they’re not really dangerous.

Bleach also concerns parents — small kids try to taste it. “Everyone thinks bleach is super poisonous,” Berkin says. “But at the concentrations in a bottle, it basically just irritates the mouth.”

Saving Lives and Money

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t call if your child gets into bleach, silica gel or anything else that concerns you. Berkin loves that he can often prevent an unnecessary emergency room trip — only about 10 percent of callers ultimately need to go. When they do, he can call ahead and let the team there know what to expect and how to treat it, saving unnecessary tests and treatments.

In fact, a study by healthcare consulting firm The Lewin Group found that poison center consultations result in fewer emergency room visits and shorter hospital lengths of stay, saving an estimated $201 million in healthcare costs per year.

Berkin’s History: A Lifelong Wahoo

Berkin lived all over the U.S. and Europe as a kid. After high school, he went to UVA and studied biology. But he was concerned that a bachelor’s degree in biology wouldn’t lead to many jobs, so he decided to seek a bachelor’s in nursing, also at UVA.

After that, he worked on various units throughout the hospital, including the burn unit. His wife is also a UVA nurse, and they have two adult children.

A Personal Commitment to Helping

In 2005, Berkin moved to the poison center. He knew the manager, and “it sounded like an interesting thing to do.”

The transition was challenging. Poison center nurses must memorize a lot of chemistry and product or drug information, including equations to determine concentrations within the body.  “If you had to look up every substance before you could even say one word, it would be very difficult because you’d get way behind,” Berkin says.

Medication mistake? Drug overdose?

Poison centers give free, confidential advice. Call 800.222.1222.

The poison center is also involved in disaster and major event preparation and coverage. During the anniversary of the Aug. 11-12 attacks in Charlottesville, he and his colleagues prepared to help if a large number of people needed treatment for teargas or pepper spray exposure.

Berkin also volunteers for the Albemarle County Sheriff’s Office. He helps with prisoner transportation, parades and football games. In many ways, disaster preparation and intervention, helping people manage stressful situations, have been integral to his life and work.

“Almost all of the time, people are appreciative of our advice,” he says of his work. “People, almost all of the time, take our advice. And almost all of the time, people have a better outcome because we gave them that advice.”

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