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Lynn Scurfield/The Globe and Mail

This is part of a series that looks at extraordinary experiences in personal health. Share yours at health@globeandmail.com.

Some of my co-workers and I have this running joke about cockroaches falling on our heads. And it actually happened to me for the first time last week. It was shocking, but I just brushed it off and continued working.

You have to have a strong stomach for this job – and a sense of humour. Especially when it comes to cleaning something particularly disgusting, it just needs to be done, and I just do it. At first, I always noticed the smells, but a fortunate or unfortunate consequence of doing this a lot is you kind of accept it and don't notice it as much. The one thing I've learned is not to think about it when you go to lunch.

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The clients we work with are people facing eviction due to unsanitary conditions either as a result of mental-health issues, such as schizophrenia or depression, or physical limitations. Some people are in wheelchairs; other people have respiratory issues that prevent them from cleaning up large messes. We don't encounter hoarding problems as frequently as you might think, but it does happen occasionally.

Hoarding is kind of impressive, actually. People may have an affinity for oscillating fans, for instance, so they'll have 50 fans in their house, or a collection of umbrellas or movies. No one needs 50 fans. So we try to make them see that. We'll say, "Well, on the balance of things, you have so many. Why don't you keep the best five and we can get rid of the rest and we can clear more space in your unit for other things or so you can use that space better?" That doesn't work all the time. But we suggest and encourage, and then we have to leave it up to the client to decide.

We go for the obvious clutter or garbage first, like napkins or foodstuff. Then, from there, we try to build a sense of mutual trust and respect. We try to encourage them to participate in a lot of the decision-making, but also to actually help us discard some of the items if they're able.

We don't just start bagging stuff and getting it out of the house because that tends to be one of biggest things they're afraid of, that we're just going to come in and throw everything out and leave them with nothing. So we ask questions to find out what particular things they might value, to make them feel secure in the knowledge that we're not just going to throw out important documents or keepsakes or photos or things that might be of sentimental value.

Often, having so much clutter can actually impede their movement around the home, and sometimes there's rotting garbage or rotting food and then there's all sorts of vermin that follow, like rodents and roaches and whatnot.

In one of the worst homes I saw, there was excessive tobacco staining on the walls, to the point they were almost brown. And excessive amounts of roach droppings in the corners of the walls going up to the ceiling. We used lots of Lysol or Windex and just scrubbed the walls.

I always find it really gratifying after a good clean. We can never get it fully 100 per cent, but it's like night and day. It goes from being a very dreary, claustrophobic environment to being a lot brighter and easier to breathe in.

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Because of this job, I'm definitely more diligent about cleaning up after myself at my house. I'm a bit more neurotic about messes or stains.

Daniel Hutchens is a cleaner with the not-for-profit VHA Home Health Care's Extreme Cleaning Program in Toronto.

Read more stories in this series here.

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