Archive for Friday, February 9, 1996


February 9, 1996


Hot lines help lower gates of ivory tower

Got a pencil and a slip of paper? I have some phone numbers you may want to write down. But first let me tell you a story.

This Texas mother had two sons, 19 and 21, who were autistic. They'd been shunned at school and even in adult programs for people with disabilities. The highlight of their day was fetching the mail. Then the oldest started throwing the TV across the living room. He was upset about life. So the mother called the Kansas University Beach Center on Families and Disability.

It was the first of many conversations between the mother and Linda Mitchell, who works the Beach Center's Family Connection Line. Though Mitchell has a child with autism, the mother's calls blew her away. Sometimes Mitchell had to leave for the day after they talked. Nevertheless, she says, staffers at the Family Connection Line, who answer a thousand distress calls a year, usually wind up feeling good about their work. The hot line is there to console and advise families with children whose thinking is impaired and who act up to boot. The number is (800) 854-4938.

My next number is for the poison control hot line at the KU Medical Center. It fields about 30,000 calls a year, most of them from moms. They turn away from little Johnny for a minute, and when they turn back, little Johnny's wolfing down the candy-coated iron supplements. Other calls are stranger. Pharmacist Carisa DeAnda remembers the concertgoer who didn't want to pay a buck for a beer, so he went out to his truck for a swig of antifreeze. "He got drunk off it, and he lost a kidney," she says. "I guess we all make choices." Certainly that's true of the dude who took a bet from friends concerning who would pick up a 10-foot rattlesnake. He almost lost his arm.

The tricky side of working a poison-control line is dealing with the cunning suicides, DeAnda says. They call in with breathless reports about an imaginary friend who's swallowed 20 Tylenols and ask, "Will it hurt him? "They're fishing for the volume of a lethal dose. Kansans with a true emergency poisoning should call (800) 332-6633.

The Medical Center's nutrition hot line, Food Talk, is a more low-temperature operation. It takes about 4,800 calls a year. Christine Moran, a registered dietitian, says the most frequently asked questions are about diet therapy -- what to eat if you've got heart disease, gut woes or high blood pressure. And in recent years, questions about herbs, vitamins and minerals have poured in. Will eating blue-green algae help me?

The center even keeps a list of questions it can't answer or whose answers are disputed. The carbohydrate content of human blood, for example. Or, for those obsessed about weight, the calories gained in licking a postage stamp. The Food Talk number is (800) 633-0445.

People call universities ivory towers. Hot lines in effect lower the drawbridge to the tower. Use them. They're wired in to great vaults of information.

-- Roger Martin is a longtime writer on research topics at Kansas University. His commentary can be heard on KANU.

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