By Lauren Gold, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 26, 2004
It all starts, says Katie Shepherd, with an itch.
Perhaps you're sitting in class, feet swinging under your chair, counting the minutes till recess. Your hand
moves absently up to your scalp, and scratches.
The itch goes away -- at first. But later, as you ride the school bus home, it comes back.
A few days pass... then your teacher calls you aside before lunch. Come with me, she says, leading you
down the hall to the nurse's office.
Minutes later, you -- an innocent kid minding your own business -- get the dreaded news.
Head lice, says the nurse. You barely hear the words before they're transmogrified into their grade-school
All at once, adults are scurrying around you -- peering into your hair and discussing your head as if it
were a lab specimen. But you have bigger worries.
What if everybody finds out?
It would mean nothing less than immediate pariah status. A permanent label, stubbornly stuck to your
name for all eternity.
Your school has a no-nit policy (all Palm Beach, Martin and St. Lucie County schools do), so you are promptly sent home -- not to return until your head is
reinspected and certified One-Hundred-Percent Nit-Free. When your parents arrive to pick you up, you avoid their pained expressions and slink out of the
building after them.
What happens then, Shepherd says, is a toss-up.
Katie Shepherd knows this story better than almost anyone. She knows plenty of others, too -- thousands of variations on the same theme. And after two
years as executive director of the country's first and only nonprofit lice-treatment center, she remembers almost every one she's encountered.
While you scratch away in disgrace, your parents are likely asking themselves a series of highly unpleasant questions.
(Their dialogue might sound something like the one between columnist and father P.J. O'Rourke and his wife, recounted for the Atlantic Monthly a year ago:
" 'How could my daughter get lice?' I shouted.... 'It's a private school!'
" 'They let us in,' my wife said."
The O'Rourkes commenced a check of their younger daughter, who turned out to have even more lice than her older sister. He continues:
" 'Where would my baby get lice?' I shouted.
" 'At the country club?'
" 'It's a private club!'
" 'They let us in.' ")
Once over their initial shock, your parents will take steps to banish the scourge.
If you're lucky, they'll be the right steps. But more likely, your parents won't know what the right steps are -- or whom to ask. And for you, that could mean
You might end up doused with a prescription treatment that will, if correctly applied, probably kill the lice. But probably, too, it won't be very good for you.
Pesticides, after all, rarely are.
Misguided home remedies
If your parents resort to home remedies -- ranging from the mild (and ineffective) mayonnaise coating to a dangerous (and equally ineffective) head-dousing
in kerosene -- you won't be any better off.
Meanwhile, they might be in a tizzy, doing load after load of laundry and running the vacuum cleaner nonstop. (Not necessary. Head lice can't live for long
without a source of food -- i.e. a nice warm scalp -- and, contrary to popular belief, they can't fly or jump from one surface to another.)
Your parents might exile the family pets. (Again, not necessary -- head lice don't live on pets.)
For that matter, your parents might exile you.
Alone though you might feel, you're in good company. Head lice have been around since antiquity ("And the Lord said unto Moses, Say unto Aaron, Stretch
out thy rod, and smite the dust of the land, that it may become lice throughout all the land of Egypt.... )
... and according to the National Pediculosis (head lice) Association, they now make their homes on 12 million heads in the United States -- plus millions
more around the world. School health officials in Palm Beach and Martin counties say the numbers seem to be declining recently, but the districts don't keep
conclusive records. There's a good chance your friends have faced the same dilemma.
You, however, don't care about any of this. You just want the icky, itchy, embarrassing bugs gone.
If you're super-lucky, your school nurse will refer your parents to Katie Shepherd's clinic, housed in a small strip mall off Military Trail near 45th Street in West
And Miss Katie can help. She wants to -- so much, in fact, that the 48-year-old Jupiter resident gave up a six-figure salary and a competitive media job...
all to wage war against a certain species of tiny, misery-inducing brown bugs.
Not about cleanliness
Shepherd is petite and cheerful, with the self-confidence of one who has earned success in two very different, very competitive, careers... and raised two kids
besides. And odd as her latest career change might seem, it didn't surprise her family a bit.
"She saw a big need in the community, and she wanted to try to help out," says her husband, Brad, who works for United Parcel Service. "She loves kids --
that's what it's all about. She's a very giving person; she gives 110 percent to anything she gets involved in."
Plus, she already knew a thing or two about head lice from her previous careers -- first as a physician's assistant, and later as a TV producer for Kiplinger's
magazine, where research for a story she reported piqued her interest in the subject.
She knew, for example, that having head lice is not a reflection on a family's cleanliness. Lice, in fact, prefer a clean, healthy head to a dirty one.
She'd learned that head lice are a major reason for school absences -- taking a toll on kids, the parents who miss work to take care of them, and the
teachers who have to spend extra time with kids who have fallen behind.
She also knew a few of the stats: People spend up to a billion dollars yearly on lice treatments and then often don't follow the products' directions -- possibly
endangering their kids with pesticide exposure, possibly ending up a rut of endless re-infestation.
What bothered Shepherd most, though, was the humiliation factor.
Having lice isn't something people talk about. So the problem can isolate kids and their families, destroy self-esteems and leave kids feeling ashamed.
"Who's the one suffering? The poor little child," she said. "Our goal was to find a way to educate, and to reduce the negative stigma. It's not a gross thing."
"Somebody," she added, "had to do something."
She started in 1998 with an outreach program at Jupiter Elementary School, where her daughter was a student. What she saw there reinforced what she
already knew: that the necessary resources to fight the problem just didn't exist. Parents faced with the problem were buying drugstore products but often
didn't use them correctly. Few took the time to do tedious, but necessary, comb-outs. And meanwhile, the most heartbreaking part: Kids were blaming
themselves for the problem.
Gradually, she cut down on her lucrative TV production work and expanded her outreach program. Two years ago, Lice Solutions Resource Network Inc.
became her full-time job.
Now, Shepherd is Head Lice Enemy Extraordinaire. If there's one lousy louse feasting on the blood below your scalp, she'll find it.
Not only that... she'll do it with a smile and a hug. And if a family can't afford to pay (as many of her clients can't), she'll do it for a reduced fee or in
exchange for a few hours of volunteer work at her clinic.
Sponsors got itchy
Over the years, Shepherd has seen head lice in babies and the elderly; she's seen people who probably contracted them through close back-to-back seating
at restaurants, and she's seen a few cases where the lice weren't treated until their host person had scratched huge gashes in her own scalp. Her clients
come from Palm Beach, Martin and St. Lucie counties, and her four technicians have even traveled to other states to help with particularly severe cases.
And as long as she can afford to, she'll always be ready to take on the next case.
But money is always an issue. The companies that initially sponsored Lice Solutions have since backed out. There are no cute poster children for lice, after
all, and the bugs aren't life-threatening. "We weren't heart-wrenching enough," she says. She's getting by on occasional grants and donations from grateful
clients, and by dipping into her retirement savings, but she hasn't drawn a paycheck in two years. Her family is "making a lot of adjustments."
"People just don't understand how tough it is," says Brad. "That's why she hasn't gotten a lot of help. People don't understand unless they've been through it.
"It has been tough financially. Hopefully, things will change. We're looking forward to that day."
The hours are tough, too. School nurses refer cases every week, and parents are often so grateful for the help that they recommend Lice Solutions to all their
friends. All good things, certainly -- but 12-hour days are common. When people show up at the clinic, "we can't tell them to come back in a week. We
work late -- it has to be dealt with then."
Still, the sparsely furnished clinic is bright and upbeat; full of toys, candy machines and stuffed animals (many donated by Shepherd's daughter Ashley, 11,
who holds an honorary "youth coordinator" title).
One mom, who brought her 10-year-old daughter in for treatment recently, said she and her daughter had been trading cases of head lice for years.
"I compare it to that Chinese water torture -- to just constantly feel like your head itches," she said.
When she suggested Lice Solutions, she thought her daughter would be too embarrassed to come. "But her eyes lit up," she said.
Every treatment at Lice Solutions includes a full comb-out with a fine-toothed comb (called a LiceMeister) and a wash with non-toxic (and mildly named)
"Not Nice to Lice." Family members also get checked, and clients come back a week later for a follow-up check. Kids sitting through treatment can watch
movies, and their parents get a lesson in the correct way to do a comb-out.
"We do everything we can to make sure they're safe. We hold their hand," said Shepherd. "It's not an easy thing."
Shirley Gordon, a head lice researcher at Florida Atlantic University, has seen cases of head lice widen divisions between family members. "The very people
you would normally go to for support are the same people you never want to know you have head lice," Gordon said. "People are isolated. The children are
Numbers apparently lower
Last year, said Palm Beach County school health administrator Anne Hedges, more than 4,000 kids were checked at school after they reported symptoms of
head lice. The district doesn't compile numbers on how many of those kids actually had lice, but she notes that the number of screenings are lower so far
this school year -- possibly the start of a positive trend.
In Martin County, student services coordinator Bill Connolly also sees hope. "It's an improving trend," he said. "Generally speaking, folks are always on the
lookout for it. The schools are well versed."
Nationally, though, the numbers are hazier. The 12 million cases cited by the National Pediculosis Association relies on money spent treating lice annually
-- not on an actual record of infestations -- and it hasn't changed in years.
For evidence that she's making a dent, Shepherd looks to the calls she gets from people in other cities, asking her advice on starting similar clinics. She
notes the thousands of clients she and her techs have treated -- and educated. And mostly she thinks of the best words someone in her business can hear.
Miss Katie, I don't itch anymore. My friends will play with me again.
"I have this save-the-world syndrome -- I like giving people peace of mind," she said. "Ultimately, I love children. I hate seeing them suffer."