The Lice Lady
A certain degree of light-hearted good cheer is required among employees and visitors of Lice Source Services, Inc., a medical clinic in Plantation devoted to ridding its customers of pesky scalp-dwelling vermin. But in the reception room this morning, a young dad with his 7-year-old daughter in tow won't get with the program. With droopy denim shorts, a wife-beater and a tough-guy goatee -- plus a perma-scowl plastered to his mug -- he fills out the form with a rigid determination borne, it turns out, from frustration.
"When parents come to us they've already done everything they can imagine," says Lidia Serrano, founder and president of LSS, as she leads dad and daughter to the back. "And now they're ready to get some expert help, because they have no idea what's going on."
As the girl looks up at Serrano with big brown eyes, two technicians wearing rubber gloves begin untying the braids her father had woven into her dark hair.
"He did that because he thought it would be a good way for her not to get 'em," Serrano explains. The father's frustration and his little girl's abject embarrassment are compounded by the fact that this is the day after the beginning of the 2005-06 school year. On her very first day of class, a mandatory head-screening detected nits in her hair, and she was sent home.
"He did treat the child, and he did try to remove the eggs," she continues, "but evidently he didn't get them all out, so he's at his wit's end right now. We have to get them all out so she can get back into school."
This is exactly what Lice Source Services offers -- a professional de-lousing regimen that takes two hours and costs $130 (it's $168 with a follow-up visit to ensure the little suckers have finally been eliminated). It may be a combination of the hassle and the expense that sends unamused dad out of the front door grumbling into his cell-phone without so much as a word to his daughter, who's in the process of getting the full treatment.
Sometimes, Serrano says as she watches him leave, clients are afraid to enter the office because they fear that the place must be crawling with lice. Actually, she explains, they can't live without a human host for more than 24 hours. But the stigma and the fear of creepy-crawlies had led more than one customer to ask for the procedure to be done in the car. "They don't want to go inside," she laughs.
"And once or twice," Serrano remembers, "the person will be out in the back of the building and the technician is going through their hair -- outside."
One corner of the white room is darkened, and a mother and daughter sit in chairs not unlike those found in a beauty parlor. Their expressions are especially un-cheery, though an animated Disney film flickers on a ceiling-mounted TV. The most-requested movie? A Bug's Life, quips Serrano. Seriously.
Hovering above the pair are two technicians wearing head-to-toe Tyvek-coveralls, peering through oversized magnifying-lens lamps at the tops of their heads. Tweezers and tiny combs probe, pluck, and pick the almost-invisible invaders, along with strands of hair, discarding them into a nearby plastic bag.
Ten years ago, Serrano, a certified medical assistant, worked as the school nurse for the Donna Klein Jewish Academy, an elementary school in Boca Raton. After dealing with several cases of lice among students, she began getting phone calls from parents requesting house calls. The 40-something native of San Juan, Puerto Rico, learned she had a real knack for nitpicking. When she casually mentioned this to her family, they suggested opening a business.
Lice are the problem that doesn't go away. Elaine Jordan, an associate director at the Broward County Health Department, says this back-to-school season is no different than any other.
"It's hard to predict," she says. "It goes in spurts." Kids sharing hats or clothing may lead to transmission in classrooms, but Jordan cautions, "don't assume they only get it at school." Now that most South Florida schools screen kids at the beginning of each semester, those with nits in their hair are sent home for parents to deal with.
Serrano and her family saw the problem as a business opportunity. When school started up in the fall of 1995, Serrano didn't return to the Donna Klein school. She set up shop at this office complex in Plantation.
Covering one fluorescent-lit wall is a series of kid's drawings illustrating the joys of not having tiny critters in one's hair. One charming crayon-colored page shows a stick-figure child with a multi-windowed "LICE HOTEL" atop his head.
Confronted with lice, parents generally opt for over-the-counter products sold in drugstores. Serrano cautions against home remedies, remembering a Davie mother who treated her 4-year-old daughter's head with gasoline a few years ago, with disastrous results; the girl's hair caught fire and she sustained second-degree burns.
"They think if they apply the stuff and use the little nit comb, it's done, but it never is," she says. On another bulletin board, photographs depict a recent case seen to by the clinic. A close-up of hair shafts shows clusters of tiny, cemented-on black eggs, or nits. "Those are all eggs, all little eggs," she says.
It looks hideous. A fairly severe case?
"No, this is pretty mild, actually, not too bad at all."
Serrano laughs and teases visitors afraid to stand too close to her -- as if the matronly blond has cooties. "We have a policy that before we leave we comb through our hair," she laughs. "We have to work with the worst cases, and sometimes they fall on you, so we have to."
LSS is well-suited, with six technicians, to handle the worst lice can dish out. It's also a research facility, working with the University of Miami to formulate new chemical strategies against lice. In fact, the wee beasties are grown and kept in an on-site incubator. "It's very humid and warm, almost like being on a human being, so they can stay alive a little longer," Serrano explains.
Before LSS was capable of supplying live head lice to researchers, she says, "they used to have to go out of the country to get the lice." To Third World countries, where there's a constant source.
Since lice quickly develop resistance to the barrage of pesticides used against them, dermatologists and other scientists are turning to more homeopathic remedies. In fact, the most recent concoction used at the clinic is made from tea tree oil, ylang-ylang, and eucalyptus. The company's logo, its line of anti-lice products, and even its miniature Afro-pick comb are all designed by Serrano.
Though the clinic has been paid celebrity visits -- like a Miami Dolphins player and his whole family -- the vast majority of those coming through the door are just folks in foul moods, given the difficulty in removing lice and the stigma of having them in the first place.
"People still think that if you have lice you're a filthy pig," she says. "They're stressed out, but then they're hugging and kissing us when they leave."
In addition to schools, Serrano points out, hair salons can be another source of lice transmission. "A lot of times people find them in hair while they're there."
Nowadays, LSS sees thousands of patients every year, thanks to word of mouth and media attention from television crews and even Time magazine. Serrano believes LSS is unique. "We're pretty much the only one," she says of her business. "And now, we have people just knocking on the door."
It's a far cry from her school-nurse days, where some thought lice were in a league with biblical plagues. "There was a lot of misinformation before we came along," Serrano notes.
Another unhappy child-parent pair strolls through the front door, and a shrill phone rings incessantly. Because of the attention of school authorities, the first week back to school is great for business, Serrano says, though it's not as if she has to worry about things slowing down.
"It's lice season all year round," she says with a proprietary smile.
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