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It Wasn't Wild Onion

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Posted Nov. 10, 2014

A Noble Research Institute research associate's proficiency in plant identification helps ailing patient
mike proctor
Mike Proctor, Noble Research Institute research associate, helped save a poisoning victim through his plant identification skills.

When Mike Proctor woke up on a typical Wednesday morning in mid-May, he had no idea his keen eye would help save a life that day.

The agricultural field plot operations research associate typically spends his time at the Noble Research Institute's Oswalt Road Ranch collecting data. But this particular day was filled with meetings that kept him on the main campus in Ardmore, Oklahoma, and away from his usual plant-tending routine.

Then Lea Brown called. As Mercy Hospital's emergency room manager, Brown had a puzzling case on her hands and needed help.

About an hour earlier, an oil pipeline crew working near Gene Autry brought one of their coworkers to the emergency room. He said he'd eaten what he thought was a wild onion and was now terribly ill. What the patient thought was a simple snack turned out to be the beginning of a nightmare.

The man was unstable, and the nurses immediately began treating his symptoms, knowing they were likely dealing with some type of poison. "We had no idea what we were dealing with," Brown said. "I'd never seen a plant do that to a person, and I've been in the medical field 20-plus years."

All they knew was they needed the plant identified. Until then, they would be in the dark. So they sent the crew back to their worksite to dig up the plant and bring it to them.

Meanwhile, Brown attempted to figure out how they could get the plant identified once they had it in their hands. On this day, having the largest private agricultural and plant science research institution less than 4 miles away was going to be a lifesaver. "I thought if anyone could help, the Noble Research Institute would be it," Brown said.

Brown called the Noble Research Institute, and Darla Warren, administrative assistant for agricultural research and operations services, began searching for the right person to help. While the nurses continued treating the man's symptoms at the hospital and waited for the puzzling plant to arrive, a phone chase began at the Noble Research Institute. Warren eventually tracked Proctor down by cell phone. Proctor, who has a master's degree in biology, is known for his ability to identify plants.

As soon as he got the call, Proctor headed to the Ag Division Building to wait for Brown. In his head, he began a process of elimination. The clues surfaced he knew the plant was most likely toxic, which eliminated about 95 percent of his options, and he knew he was limited by location and time of year.

Proctor typically likes to see the plant's flower and fruit when identifying plants. He looks through books, checks the Internet, puts individual parts under a microscope and, ideally, compares the mystery plant to identified plants.

"It takes time to identify a plant," Proctor said, "But when the ER doctors and nurses are literally waiting for your identification, you don't have time. Then it comes down to an in-depth familiarity with the vegetation of the area."

Brown arrived at the Ag Division Building, leaves and a small bulb in hand. Proctor was at the front desk waiting. He already had a pretty good idea of what the plant might be when Brown walked up. To make sure he hadn't missed anything, Proctor sat down at the computer and started going through a list of plants to compare his clues against their characteristics.

Within 15 minutes, he had the culprit Zigadenus nuttallii one of several toxic species commonly known as Nuttall's deathcamas, which is poisonous when consumed because of a toxic alkaloid called zygacine.

A member of the lily family, Nuttall's deathcamas is a perennial herb native to areas in the Southern Great Plains and east. It has long, narrow leaves near the bottom of the plant, and its stem rises from a bulb. The poisonous plant typically grows unnoticed. It's only recognizable while in bloom, a relatively short period of time.

Those unfamiliar with the plant may look at its bulb and mistake it for wild onion, although its bulb does not have the same onion odor as a wild onion. Deathcamas poisoning may cause stomach pain, nausea, muscle spasticity, slowed heart rate, low blood pressure, difficulty breathing, coma and even death.

Fortunately, Proctor's speedy and correct identification enabled Brown to help the nurses back at the emergency room. A few minutes after Proctor identified the plant, Brown was in her car calling the emergency room to give them the name. They then immediately called poison control, which was able to advise them on treatment. The patient was admitted to the hospital, but he eventually recovered and was released.

"I'm grateful they were so giving of their time," Brown said. "In a situation like this, he helped save a life."

Proctor was happy to help but said a person in an emergency goes to the person with the right information. On that particular day, he just happened to be the right guy. "This may be the first time my background was useful to something besides our cows," Proctor said. "It's nice to have helped someone in a bad situation, and it makes you feel good about your local hospital to see them go to such great lengths to help a patient."