It was the December of 2019 and my husband and I had been discussing a potential shift in my newly budding career as a nurse. I had spent two years working as regular staff at a level one trauma center, and I was looking for something different. I was frequently stressed and restless. We had several travel nurses in our unit, a 24 bed intensive care unit that specialized in pulmonary and medical illnesses. In between caring for patients, I started to get to know our travelers and ask them about their journeys.
One travel nurse in particular took me under her wing when I told her I was interested in traveling. She had been travel nursing for the better part of her career; while she enjoyed her travels she enjoyed some of the more quiet pleasures in life. Travel nursing is often associated with young single nurses who not only want the freedom that travel nursing offers, but the ability to explore new cities and meet new people. My situation was vastly different from most travelers I had met. I was married, my husband and I had bought a new home that we were just settling into. I was and am a homebody, but this nurse invested her time in answering my questions about travel nursing. She set me on the path to success, telling me about her experiences and preferences for facilities and travel agencies. She encouraged me to make my own decisions and not let my differences from other travel nurses deter me from going after what I wanted. She was a travel nurse handbook, something that simply did not and doesn’t exist, and for that I will always be grateful. After much research and planning, I finally decided it was time to cross the threshold. I had found a recruiter at a reputable agency, it was time to find my first assignment. Little did I know COVID would hit a month and a half into my first contract or that I would still be traveling two years later.
I know my story probably resonates with many nurses who have switched to travel nursing. I know there are many more who are still considering the travel nurse life. Pandemic times have augmented many of the problematic realities within the nursing field: long hours, mandatory overtime, short-staffing, high patient load and acuity, high stress, not enough pay, ever changing schedules, and outstanding levels of nurse burnout. Nurses have started to flock to travel nurse agencies looking for an alternative. Nurses want better pay, ideal locations, more control over their time off, and to feel like a priority. The number of staff nurses who have left their facilities for travel has caused a growing shift in the nursing field. Hospitals are scrambling to fill empty staffing, facilities and states are looking to cap travel nurse pay, and hospital beds are having to be held empty to make up for lack of staff.
Despite this, nurses are empowering themselves through travel nursing to demand more freedom; freedom from required overtime, the ability to schedule vacation days into their contract, an escape from office politics, the ability to negotiate their pay, the opportunity to see how other facilities operate, and a chance to see new places. Some see travel nurses as greedy, but others see them as men and women owning what they are worth and demanding more from their career. Travel nursing is not for every nurse. You have to be able to quickly learn and follow new policies and protocols, flexible enough to float to different units frequently, and work well with people you don’t know all while being away from your family for days and possibly weeks at a time. We travelers still work long 12 hour shifts three, four, sometimes five or six times a week depending on the contract. We have to be prepared to work in a new unit at a new facility with only one week of orientation. It can be lonely and difficult at times and the compensation reflects these facets of travel nursing.
The pandemic has caused those in the healthcare field to question what the future of nursing will look like. Will staff nursing remain the standard for hospitals across the country? Will the model of one nurse per so many patients be an effective strategy at meeting the needs of patient safety? Will team nursing make a triumphant return to hospital corridors? Or will nurse staffing look altogether different than it does today? There are some who believe travel, or agency nursing will become the new standard for staffing; nurses who are hired and paid through a third party will become the backbone of bedside nursing. Change will be vital to keeping nurses at the bedside as more men and women realize their worth and take on their goals in an effort to escape burnout. Who knows where nursing will lead, but I know that travel nursing has been one of the most difficult and rewarding decisions I have ever made.