Annapolis Residents’ Lice Removal Business Takes Off

Lice Happens featured in The Capital Newspaper “Business” Section!

By ALLISON BOURG, Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 16, 2011

When it comes to their business, M.J. Eckert and Nancy Fields can get pretty nitpicky.

The two Annapolis women earn their living removing lice from people’s heads – an unusual line of work that’s prone to raising a few eyebrows at cocktail parties.

But that doesn’t faze them a bit.

Nancy Fields, left, and M.J. Eckert, the owners of lice removal service Lice Happens, get ready to remove lice from 10-year-old Emma Fischer’s head. Fields and Eckert go into people’s homes and use “nit combs” and other tools to get lice out of people’s hair.

“We’ve come to love the louse,” said Eckert, a former school nurse who dealt with a lice-ridden student every few weeks. “We’re not afraid of them. In fact, we love a case where there are thousands.”

Next-door neighbors Eckert and Fields started Lice Happens, a mobile lice removal service, 2 1/2 years ago. Since then, the duo has expanded its business into about a half-dozen states along the East Coast. The women, along with their crew of 10 full- and part-time employees, see around three dozen customers each week.

“There’s a lot of work, as it turns out,” Fields said.

Their biggest months are usually September – not only is it National Head Lice Awareness Month, it’s also when children are back in school – and January. The holidays tend to bring families with children together, and if one child has lice, the others can easily get them, the women said.

A typical appointment starts out something like this: One of the women gets a call from a distressed parent of a child with head lice. The parent is often sobbing.

“They give us their lice story,” Fields said.

As Eckert put it, “we have to be their therapist, nurse, confidante, adviser. We have to wear a lot of different hats.”

Afterward, Lice Happens goes into the home of the infected child, armed with pesticide-free shampoo and a metal “nit comb” to scrape the bugs from the scalp and the hair. The business charges $100 an hour, and the entire process generally takes about an hour and a half for girls, depending on the length and thickness of their hair, and about 30 minutes for boys.

“Although now with Justin Bieber, boys are holding onto their hair, so it can take a lot longer,” Fields said with a chuckle.

Lice Happens also screens family members for lice by combing through all of their hair, and leaves them with tips and information on what to do if there’s a reinfestation of lice.

“We like to say that we’re putting ourselves out of business one family at a time,” Fields said. “They may not sound like it’s a good business model, but we think it’s the right business model. I can’t just treat – I have to train and educate, too.”

For one Annapolis mom, who did not want her name used, the educational portion of Lice Happens’ visit was the most important.

“Once a week, you’ve got to comb your children. It’s just got to be part of the whole hygiene package,” she said. “You don’t need the chemicals, you don’t need to deep clean your home.”

Having a child with head lice is emotionally distressing for parents, said Dr. Jim Kalliongis, a Stevensville pediatrician.

“They do a great job of hand-holding,” he said.

They’re not looking for repeat business, Eckert and Fields say. They’re looking for referral business.

It seems to be working.

“We started on Jan. 1, 2009, and our first quarter, our revenue was $2,000,” Fields said. “Now we’re in the six figures … not the high six figures, but we’ll get there.”

The neighbors came up with the idea for their business on New Year’s Eve 2008, when they started chatting about head lice at a party.

Fields’ twin sister, who at the time had a 10-year-old daughter and an 8-year-old son, was dealing with persistent cases of lice in both of her children.

“When my sister called me, she epitomized the typical response of a parent,” Fields said. “She was doing loads and loads of laundry, everything was taken out of the closets, everything was in bags.”

All that would have been fine if it were working.

“But it wasn’t,” Fields said.

She and Eckert decided to team up and find something that would help her sister and other parents.

There are so many myths about lice, a six-legged insect that lives in human hair and is most often found in children ages 3 to 13.

The most common misconception, the pair say, is the perception that people who have it have poor personal hygiene, or that they get lice from being in a filthy home or school.

That is absolutely not true, Eckert and Fields emphasize. Lice actually love clean hair, because they can cling to it.

Another myth – that lice jump or fly from head to head. They do crawl, and they can be easily spread by sharing hairbrushes, hats or pillows.

And once you’ve got a pregnant female louse – who can lay up to five to 10 nits, or eggs, daily – you can have hundreds or even thousands of insects crawling through your hair.

Doctors have traditionally recommended over-the-counter treatments, like Rid or Nix, but over the years, the lice have become resistant, Eckert said. The Internet is filled with suggested home remedies to get rid of lice, including smothering the infected head in salad dressing, mayonnaise or olive oil.

That just makes a big mess, and it doesn’t even kill the bugs, Eckert and Fields said.

“It all boils down to combing,” Eckert said.