Saturday, September 26, 2009

Hair not so nice

In the early 1990's, with two kids under the age of five, Dave and I established a workable household routine. We fed our children healthy food, kept them active and outside, got them to bed at a decent hour. While we didn't love the ordeal of nightly baths, we tackled them with good-humored resilience.

So when the preschool letter came home in January about a Northwest epidemic of head lice, I hardly even read it. Lice weren't something I'd ever had, and neither would our kids.

Weeks passed. We belonged to an Island Babysitting Co-op, and shared child care responsibilities with about 20 other families on a barter system. It was useful for things like dental appointments, the rare night out on the town. The kids got to play with others their age under the supervision of parents. In turn, parents brought their kids over to our house. During winter break that year, our family flew to Florida to meet up with the grandparents and cousins from the midwest. Once we returned, I set up a play date between my daughter and a girl in the neighborhood.

No sooner had I dropped Vivian off at Brynne's house than I got a call from her mother Tami.

"Claire, I think you should come get Vivian." Tami sounded tense; I agreed immediately.

As I walked the short distance down the street, I imagined some childish mishap, permanent magic marker on the walls, gum in the hair, a biting episode. When I arrived, Tami was standing in the driveway with Vivian in her tight grip.

"What's up?" I said.

Tami put her hand on Vivian's head and pushed her hair aside to expose her scalp. There were red welts and scratch marks behind her ears. "I've never seen such a terrible case of head lice. It looks like it's gone on for some time."

I took Vivian off her hands, doing my best to tamp down my revulsion. My own scalp crawled just being in proximity. "What should I do?"

"They sell a shampoo. It's pretty strong, but it's the only way to get rid of them. Don't let her play with anyone until it's cleared up."

As soon as Vivian and I got back, I crammed both kids in the car and rushed to the drugstore. Back home, as I filled the bathtub for the first louse dousing, I was reading the instructions from the shampoo box when a fat louse plopped off my head onto the paper. I had lice, too. So did our son George. And Dave. A lice epidemic.

The lice species has our family to thank for a healthy growth spike that spring. If you examine the lice community's victim chart, the graph shows a significant rise of head lice in Mercer Island residents, in the Florida Keys, and on certain airline flights across the U.S. My brother's family, now back home in Cincinnati, had picked up our head lice, too.

"I had to cut Erica's hair off. They were everywhere," Cheri said when I called. "I wondered where they'd come from."

If you've never had lice before, here's the drill: In addition to the caustic shampoo and nit combs (lather, rinse, repeat ad infinitum), you have to wash everything your head has been in contact with, and/or spray it with lice spray. Throw away every kid's costume hat in the play trunk. And, you must confess your embarrassing infestation to everyone who may have come in contact with your hair, or your children's hair, or sat in a chair in your house ... Apologies don't begin to cover it. You've got cooties.

We waged war, and gradually, we won the battle. Everyone, that is, except for my daughter. Her hair was so fine, the nit combs didn't do the job. As far as I could tell, there was nothing there. I treated and combed and laundered, but the lice kept reappearing every week or so.

Then one afternoon in the spring, as I waited for my son at a T-ball practice, Vivian fell asleep with her head on my lap. The sun shone down on her head through the windshield, and at last I saw them--thousands of miniscule, clear nodules attached to every strand of hair on her head.

I especially like the eMedicineHealth web site on lice. They say that lice only live on humans. They note there are hundreds of millions of cases every year. We have met the enemy; it is lice.