TAMPA — The family had tried everything to get rid of the bugs: chemical treatments, magnifying glasses, thorough cleaning, even mayonnaise.
But in February the school nurse phoned: Allyson, Janet Stanley's 9-year-old daughter, still had lice.
Who could they call?
Enter Dana Ferlita, the nit picker.
It's a "lousy" business, but Ferlita literally picks nits, or lice eggs, for a living.
And she's not the only one. The Shepherd Institute for Lice Solutions, in West Palm Beach, trains people nationwide in the art of freeing hair from these tiny, blood-sucking insects.
Pickers have opened shops around the country — the Texas Lice Squad, Lousy Nitpickers in California and Fairy LiceMothers in New York City.
These days when kids come into contact with other kids, potentially spreading all kinds of germs — and lice — nit picking can be quite lucrative.
Ferlita charges $80 for her first hour of nit picking. She recently counted nine customers in 10 days.
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Head lice infestations are a national epidemic — second only to the common cold, says lice expert Katie Shepherd, founder and CEO of the Shepherd Institute. There's a tendency to pass the insects back and forth or to never fully kill them in the first place. Part of the problem, lice have grown resistant to chemical treatments.
Ferlita's guess: at least 10 percent of children have lice at any time. They get them anywhere kids gather, like summer camps.
About 20 percent of their moms also have bugs, says Ferlita, 39. She says she combed one woman's waist-length hair for nine hours, pulling out about 2,000 bugs.
She always gets the same reaction when she tells people what she does.
They scratch their heads.
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This month, Allyson sat on a kitchen stool in her Seminole Heights home and happily chanted: "Oh yea. Oh yea. Oh yea."
Ferlita, who lives in Carrollwood, had just given her the good news: no bugs.
"It's kind of embarrassing." Allyson said later. And painful. A couple times she cried while Ferlita picked.
Allyson's thick brown hair had been down past her waist in November. Then, "It felt like a tingling, a ticklish something," Allyson said. "The more you scratched, the more it itched."
Her mom figured it was dry scalp. She tried tea tree oil. But the itching got worse, and she took Allyson to a doctor, who saw something scurry.
"She stepped waaay back," Janet Stanley said. "She said go to Walgreens, get the kit."
Stanley spent the day treating and cleaning and that night, found a louse on her own head.
"At midnight I had my hair drenched in mayonnaise, wrapped in a plastic grocery bag, and I was cleaning my house and car," she said.
Throughout January, Stanley Googled treatments. She combed. She braided. She oiled. She picked. She cut 6 inches off Allyson's hair.
But the bugs came back. And the school nurse called.
Hillsborough schools have a no nits policy, which excludes kids with nits from school. It says they should not miss more than two days for head lice.
Someone gave Ferlita's business card to Stanley. Ferlita combed about 45 bugs out of Allyson's hair. In the months to follow, she checked Allyson's hair a dozen times and found lice two more times. In April, she found adult lice, but no nits or nymphs, which are the newly hatched. Allyson was being reinfested.
Stanley talked to the principal, called the Health Department and the School Board, complaining that Allyson was being reinfested. Allyson missed two weeks of school, and her mother is wondering what to do when school starts again.
To be able to see his daughter's nits, Kenny Stanley — immune to the bugs because he's bald — even bought a pair of jeweler's glasses that looked like they came right out of Honey I Shrunk the Kids.
All told, it cost the Stanleys about $850 to banish the bugs.
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As you might guess, picking bugs out of people's hair wasn't Ferlita's first career choice. It's somewhat of a personality quirk that drives a person to hunt for bugs for hours at a time.
In her last career, as a legal secretary, she hunted grammatical errors in legal documents. She quit that job nine years ago to be a stay-at-home mom. Her husband, Paul, works in sales.
As a child at Twin Lakes Elementary School, she'd had lice numerous times, and Ferlita swore her three kids never would.
But they did.
Her son was 9 when he got them and passed them to her. She used an over-the-counter treatment then realized she couldn't nurse her infant daughter for 48 hours.
She thought there must be a better way.
She got certified in a week at the institute in West Palm Beach, then started the Nit Fairy in October.
Ferlita uses a pesticide-free treatment, starts at the nape of the neck and works up, partitioning hair. She searches, strand by strand.
No product kills nits, she says. Get a good comb.
Most of her business comes from word of mouth — and often from head to head. She treated three North Tampa girls who went to a sleepover.
Her work comes with certain hazards. Twice, she has come home with lice, which she combed out herself. But she enjoys helping people, and she averages $200 a visit.
They're typically ecstatic to see her. Yet, when she leaves, they hope never to see her again.
Elisabeth Parker can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3431.