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The Globe and Mail

Greater Vancouver Lice Clinic owner makes clients feel at home

Globe and Mail reporter Marsha Lederman has her hair checked for lice by Darlene Miller at the Greater Vancouver Lice Clinic.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

For much of the year, Globe and Mail journalists in the B.C. bureau worked to reveal the work of policy makers, authority figures and ordinary citizens. Much focus was on safety in British Columbia's mills and mines, concerns over resource development, labour strife between the province and its teachers and the future of transit investment. Our job was to raise questions and look at the impact of weak links.

Over the holiday period, our reporters are turning their attention to the things that are working well in British Columbia.

The first series – Things that Work – takes a look at businesses, services and infrastructure that are not often heralded because, well, they actually work well. We will profile a company on Vancouver Island that has revived the Twin Otter aircraft and a woman who runs a home-based business helping embarrassed and itching families get rid of head lice. We will look at the Sea to Sky Highway improvements and the Point Grey bike lane.

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The second series introduces readers to the next generation of innovators, the people you have never heard of but soon will. We asked prominent British Columbians to nominate people they are keeping an eye on. Among our instalments: Grand Chief Ed John has nominated a busy aboriginal doctor, and former premier Glen Clark has nominated an environmental entrepreneur.

Some people have a calling and Darlene Miller's is nit-picking. "I quite enjoy getting my hands in people's heads," she says. "I look at people's hair and I think: 'Oh, I'd love to get in there.'"

In the lice clinic her husband built in the basement of their suburban home, Ms. Miller and her staff of four have treated thousands of families – not only removing lice and nits, but making clients feel comfortable and educating them in the process – chatting away about life cycles, and other not-so-fun facts about lice.

"What actually causes the itchiness is after a few days of heavy feeding, naturally they start to go to the washroom," she explains during a screening. "So it's a combination of feces getting into the bite marks that causes that first wave of itchiness."

Ms. Miller brings out a binder – "The Big Book of Lice" – that she has packed with photos, information and even specimens. "These are actual things I picked off people," she says, flipping to a page containing five slides and a few groupings of dead lice and nits. There's one particularly horrifying photo – an infestation so extreme that the lice ran out of room on the head and migrated down and deposited eggs in the person's eyelashes.

"We just went in with our fingers; of course you can't comb that out."

Ms. Miller, 49, a former lab technician who once ran an after-school daycare in her home, got into the lice business because of a chronic, upsetting misunderstanding.

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Her then-young daughter had psoriasis, which her teachers kept mistaking for lice, and sending her home from school. It came to a head on a Monday morning, when Ms. Miller learned that a classmate of her daughter's had had a birthday party and invited everyone in the class except for her daughter. ("You know that Laura, she's always got the lice," the woman had told another parent, who recounted the conversation for Ms. Miller. "So I thought I'd do everyone a favour and not invite the Millers.") Ms. Miller began researching the topic through the National Pediculosis Association (NPA). She learned a lot, started treating people she knew from the school, and then went into business.

She has dealt with all kinds of cases in her more than 15 years on the job – ranging from extreme cases with "hundreds of thousands of them" to cases like mine, where she found one early stage nymph.

Yes, I know about the Greater Vancouver Lice Clinic from personal experience. First my then-five-year-old brought home a lice notice from the community centre where he was getting care during the teachers' strike, and then he brought home the lice. And then he gave it to me.

Having survived bed bugs four years ago, I was initially pretty chill about the lice experience – if you have school-aged kids there's a pretty good chance you are going to be affected in some way by lice. Then, after I was sure they were gone following the toxic creme rinse treatment, we pulled something out of my hair that the microscope we had purchased for this purpose revealed was a louse – and still crawling.

"There are insects [making love] in my hair," I bellowed at my husband during this low point. (As Ms. Miller has since informed me, they are not in fact insects, but human parasites.)

So I did some Googling, found the Greater Vancouver Lice Clinic, and was immediately impressed by their phone manner: calm, kind, helpful and not at all pushy.

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Ms. Miller has comforted many a despondent parent, and part of her mission is to eradicate the stigma. "Everyone who phones us is stressed out," she says. "The bottom line is we don't want the children thinking having head lice is something bad. It's not. It's part of being a human being; it just is what it is."

I made an appointment for a Sunday morning, and our family of five drove out to a residential pocket of Maple Ridge where we were again greeted warmly, shuffled off to a private waiting room until the family before us had departed, and we were all checked.

It was as pleasant as this experience can be. There were toys and shelves stuffed with kids' movies. One wall was lined with pictures by children ("Thank you for taking lice out of my hair"). Two women, including Ms. Miller, worked quickly, strapping on latex gloves and magnifying visors. My husband and stepchildren were clear. I had that one nymph – too immature to reproduce – and my son had a few nits. They got rid of everything, sold me a LiceMeister comb, instructed me on the wet-combing method, and gave me a schedule for at-home checks.

Education is a huge part of Ms. Miller's method. During a screening, she will pontificate at length on the importance of a good lice comb, or the sexual habits of lice.

And when Ms. Miller goes into schools or other organizations, she is keen to teach parents how to screen for lice and nit-pick themselves.

"A lot of people say, 'You're crazy, Darlene – you'll go out of business.' And I laugh at them and say, 'I'm not. Do you know how much head lice there is in the world? I'll never go out of business.'"

The clinic, which operates 8-8 seven days a week, charges $10 per person for screening or $30 per family, then $60 per hour per technician for removal (if you need this, the screening fee is waived). She'll do house calls too, for an additional service charge ranging from $60-$100 depending on where you live. For house calls, the clinic always sends two technicians. ("We want to be in and out of your home and hair as quickly as possible.")

Recognizing that economics are a barrier for some families dealing with lice, she has put together loan-out lice kits for the schools she visits that include tools for removal and educational material, including a new instructional DVD she has made.

The clinic also offers follow-up services: as many phone calls as you need and a confirmation screening once you think you're clear. In my case, I even e-mailed photos of something I found in my hair using the aforementioned microscope (which hooks into Photo Booth so you can take pictures). It was not lice, not a nit. And at my free, follow-up screening I was pronounced lice-free.

Cost of the full service (including the LiceMeister) for my family: $105.58

The benefit: Liceless.

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