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Getting the cooties

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Over coffee with a friend on Thursday morning I complimented myself on having three healthy children. After several weeks of drippy noses, hacking coughs and a bout of bronchitis the kids finally seemed fit, just in time for their upcoming spring break. I knocked once on the café’s wooden table and then rapped my knuckles against my teeth, following both American and Czech superstitions to secure my good fortune. But I should have known life with small children is rarely predictable.

When I went to pick the kids up from school an hour later Oliver’s preschool teacher’s usually expressionless face lit up. She called Oliver to pick up his toys and came rushing to me. Since I never rate more than the standard “dobry den” and “nashledanou,” and the teacher usually takes her time getting to the door, I briefly wondered if Oliver had done something remarkable. Perhaps he’d finally managed to clean his plate at lunch, a feat rewarded by his Czech teachers with a sticker and a piece of candy. But, in general, we rarely get updates on Oliver’s school performance, unless there is a problem. More likely we’d forgotten to make the monthly payment on time.

My eyes flickered to a hand-lettered sign hanging to the right of the door, “Mame vši ve tride.” I had seen similar signs in the children’s preschools before, and I wondered if the sign had been there yesterday. I noticed one boy with a newly shaved head and guessed the sign was new. When the teacher reached me, she smiled broadly, saying that they had a few cases of head lice reported, so they’d checked all the children. They’d discovered larvae in Oliver’s hair, and they wanted to make sure I knew about it. He never even scratched his head, the teacher added, as if that was supposed to give me some consolation. Maybe it was my imagination, but I couldn’t help but feel that she was slightly amused that I’d have to deal with the annoyance of lice.

It took all the control I had not to start scratching my own head as soon as I heard the news. Lice – eghats! Oliver had only been back in school a few days after being out with a cough for two weeks. But I wasn’t surprised. Whenever something out of the ordinary happens, Oliver, a middle child, is quick to lament, “Why does everything always happen to me?” Since the fall Oliver’s had the chicken pox, tonsillitis and laryngitis. His iron levels were so low the doctor thought he might have mono. His two front teeth were pulled by the dentist after they were knocked loose when he bumped heads with a friend at a Halloween party. He’s been out of school more days than in. Sure, why shouldn’t he be the child to contract lice?

If I lived near my mother, I’d be speed dialing her number for help, or at least for some moral support. Instead, I called our pediatrician. Having three young children has brought us in close contact, especially during the winter months when illnesses seem to crop up. I’ve found that when the situation doesn’t require a complicated medical diagnosis, I’ve gotten good telephone advice from her nurse. That day, the nurse listened sympathetically and suggested I buy the Paranit brand shampoo at the closest pharmacy. She’d had good luck using it when her granddaughter had a case of lice. She seemed a bit embarrassed to admit that head lice had struck her family as well, but she reminded me that it’s a normal nuisance to be dealt with.

My next frantic call was to Radek, who took the news in his usual calm manner, saying basically that if all we have to worry about are a few parasitic bugs, then we should count ourselves lucky. I thought about asking him to come home and shampoo everyone’s hair, pick through each strand, wash all the bedding and recently worn clothing, sanitize the hair care products, vacuum the potentially infected spaces and then promptly change the vacuum bag filter, as the instructions on the shampoo stated. Instead, I took a deep breath and moved into action. Oliver’s teacher had suggested that I check his head several times after shampooing to get the offensive lice out. For at least an hour I sat with Oliver in the bathroom and went through his head strand by strand. At first, Oliver was hysterical, but when I explained what I was doing, he calmed down and began to chat about other things. When I finished with Oliver, I did Anna Lee and Samuel, then myself. Once I had everyone’s head shampooed and nit-picked, I felt a little calmer, even if I still had the urge to scratch my head.

When I confessed our latest drama to a friend in Prague who’s also the mother of three, she admitted her family had also dealt with head lice. Her own head had been itchy and she’d attributed it to everything from having recently given birth to having dry skin. She’d finally realized the cause when she looked in the mirror and saw a louse dart across her forehead. During the treatment process, her mother had even shampooed her son’s hair with shampoo for dogs with fleas. I remember my brother got his first buzz cut when he got sent home from school after being diagnosed with lice. Supposedly, he greeted a painter who was working in our house with a joyous exclamation, “Hey guys, I get to stay home, I’ve got lice.” Talking with my aunt who’s the mother of four revealed that when her family went through the lice ordeal only my uncle escaped unscathed. A phone call home confirmed that even my grandmother had a story to tell about lice during her school years.

Oliver was disappointed that he’d have to stay home the following day because he’d prepared Valentines cards with lollipops to give out to his classmates. He was a bit confused why he had bugs in his hair and he thought his teachers had gotten them out when they were looking through it. He is by far our most squeamish bather and the most-resistant to soaping his hair, so vanquishing the nits became a battle on multiple levels. Fortunately, despite his resistance to hair washing and brushing, Oliver enjoys getting his hair cut, so when I took him for a short new do, he was eager to comply. I confessed to the hairdresser as well, who agreed it was something most kids had to experience at some point.

Knowing that Oliver’s case of head lice wasn’t a reflection of my family’s hygiene, I still couldn’t help remembering being a kid and chasing classmates through the playground screaming that so-and-so had the “cooties.” At that point, we believed you got lice from kissing, and we made sure to stay away from any infected party, especially of the opposite gender. Oliver seemed too young to be teased by his classmates for having lice, and I was grateful for that. Armed with a vial of tea tree oil believed to help ward off lice returns, I packed up our squeaky-clean family and we headed to the mountains for spring break. In spite of having spent 24 hours in mini-crisis mode, I realized that while handling the ups and downs and minor set-backs of family life, I was learning some important life lessons, even those I’d have rather left unknown. Oliver’s sporting his new hairdo with pride and I’m contemplating getting my cropped off too. Even without the lice, I can’t stop itching.

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