My editor, Kathy Steiner, had the idea for doing a story on head lice, having talked to some people unlucky enough to have been infested. Their attempts to get rid of the creatures constituted quite the ordeal, apparently.
As I investigated lice a little more, I found that certain aspects of the problem had no common agreement.
First, people who experienced head lice firsthand or secondhand (as parents of afflicted children) had quite a range of opinions. One mother said her children had gotten it, she’d treated them, and it was no big deal. But another called it “the scourge of adolescence.”
Second, although all health professionals told me anyone could get lice, and that it has nothing to do with cleanliness, hygiene or poverty, there is still stigma attached to head lice. A summer camp where head lice got around a bit had angry parents calling them and asking them how they could have “let” such a thing happen.
Here’s the thing: it only takes one infested kid, who may not even be showing symptoms, to spread head lice around. And you can wash your hair all you like, but it’s not going to get rid of the lice unless you’re using an anti-lice shampoo.
It isn’t as if summer camps dip children in pesticide the day they show up to camp. I seriously doubt anyone would think that was a good idea.
But still, the Central Valley Health District ladies really wanted the word to get out that anyone can get lice. It doesn’t mean you’re dirty.
Still, the gut-level revulsion lice inspires (and yes, it grosses me way, way out too) can make people extremely vehement on the subject.
When we decided to write the head lice article, I put up a notice on my facebook page about it, asking for people’s personal stories regarding the pesky insects. We also put in a little notice for the newspaper, asking folks to call in.
Unsurprisingly, I only really received one phone call offering to tell a personal story about lice– from Olga Hieb, 81, of Cleveland. Her take offered a bit of historical insight. When her brother had lice decades ago, the treatment was a kerosene wash (not currently recommended!), and then his mom put his clothes in the oven. (Lice don’t like high heat.)
I did get one other phone call about the story, however, but was unfortunately not in the office to receive it. The anonymous message on my answering machine was from a woman who seemed rather upset. There’s absolutely nothing that can identify her here, so I’m going to give you her side of the story:
“I’m calling about your article in the paper, wanting people to call in about their experiences with head lice. Actually, I think it’s kind of crude, that you want to know about people’s experiences with head lice,” she said. “What you need to know about the facts that you listed in the paper, you go right across the alley to the nurse’s office [author's note: the Central Valley Health District is on the same block as the Sun's office, and you have to cross an alley to get there], (they’ll) give you all the information you need.
“Why would you want people to call in and say they’ve had head lice? I have not had head lice since I was three years old,” she continued. “My mother picked it up from the beauty shop, but it’s embarrassing. It’s just a thing kids pick up from the school. It’s very embarrassing. Why would you do that? I don’t understand.”
I wanted to write the story because according to all the information that’s out there, you shouldn’t have to be embarrassed about getting head lice. It can happen to anyone.
At least some of the people I interviewed for the story about having had it are my friends and classmates, and they are clean and tidy. They just happened to go to a school with coat pegs instead of lockers, or had to help a patient with lice sit up to take his pills. Lice are gross, but it was certainly not their fault they got it.
And I’m pretty sure it wasn’t the poor woman on the answering machine’s fault either. Thank you for calling me, and I wish I’d gotten to speak with you.