Hi everyone, and welcome to the newest Travel Career Snapshot! Today we’re headed back to the medical field to talk about what it’s like to be a travel nurse. I’m interviewing Megan, whose work as an emergency room travel nurse has taken her all across the United States and even to Peru.
I was fortunate to meet Megan when a mutual friend invited her to join our book club during her brief assignment in the Philadelphia area. Even though she broke my wine opener on the first day we met, I liked her right away 😉 She seemed to fit into the group immediately, which I suppose is good evidence as to why she makes a great travel nurse. She is outgoing, warm, and adventurous, and I was really disappointed when her job took her out of the area after only a few meetings.
Thankfully, I was able to use Full Life, Full Passport as an excuse to reconnect with Megan and ask her more questions about her fabulous life. Since leaving Philadelphia, she has been spending her time in Alaska, so it’s been both fun and jealousy-inducing to follow her photos on social media. I know Megan works hard, but her job as a travel nurse seems to have given her some great opportunities to play hard as well.
I’m grateful that Megan was willing to spend some time answering my questions in between the COVID-craziness of her work and the awesomeness of her Alaskan adventures! I hope you enjoy the interview, and don’t forget that if you or someone you know has a job that would make a great Travel Career Snapshot, let me know!
Hi, Megan! Thanks so much for joining us and sharing your story. Let’s start by learning about who you are outside of your job.
Hi! I grew up in Wilmington, North Carolina, and went to nursing school in Asheville, North Carolina. For fun, I enjoy most outdoor activities, specifically horseback riding, hiking, camping, biking, paddling and climbing. And of course I love any excuse to travel, whether to check out our wealth of beautiful locations here in the US or taking the opportunity to experience different cultures abroad.
Where did you get your passion for travel?
I get my passion for travel from my parents, who were great about traveling with us since we were kids. They started by taking us on road trips to see the national parks at a young age, then took us abroad to Europe for the first time when I was in middle school.
My dad always told stories from his younger years of wild road trips to Canada and Mexico in his campervan. The “Big Red Van” sat retired in our driveway while I was a kid and was a favorite spot to play and hide out. Now I’ve got a campervan of my own, a former construction van which my fiancé and I outfitted into a camper.
Tell us a little bit about your job as a nurse.
I am an emergency room nurse who has worked anywhere from huge inner-city trauma centers to tiny rural hospitals where we’d have to call the doctor to come in if a patient arrived. Though I’ve worked in a lot of different hospitals in various locations around the country, the basics of emergency nursing are the same everywhere. I get to be part of a dynamic team of healthcare providers, and the decisions and actions we make are sometimes truly the difference between life and death.
How is being a travel nurse different from more traditional forms of nursing?
It is different than traditional full-time nursing because every hospital does things a little differently. Everything from the hospital layout, computer charting systems, patient care flow, and patient demographics and cultural preferences can vary based on where I’m on assignment. I have to be very flexible and adaptive to these differences, and travel nurses have to be quick learners since you usually only get a day or two of orientation to your new unit.
Note: to put that in perspective, a typical nursing orientation period can be as long as three months or more.
How often are you moving from place to place? Do you have any say in where you go and how long you stay there?
As a travel nurse, I take assignments in emergency rooms around the country. Where I go is entirely up to me. I work with a placement agency, and I basically tell them where I want to go and they match me up with hospitals in that area. My typical assignment lasts three months, but I sometimes extend contracts for up to a year.
Where all have you worked? Did you have any favorites or places you didn’t particularly like?
I have taken assignments in Charleston, South Carolina; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Kauai, Hawaii; and Fairbanks and Anchorage, Alaska. I have loved both of my Alaska assignments and am currently in Anchorage extending my assignment as long as possible.
Although I really enjoyed the area, I didn’t love the hospital where I worked in Charleston. I found working as a nurse in the South generally harder than other places around the country because there are no nursing unions there. Staffing ratios tend to be worse, there are fewer breaks (I often worked 12-hour shifts without lunch), the patients tend to be sicker in those areas, and the pay is lower, too. Both the hospitals I’ve worked in Alaska have been excellent, and I’ve felt well stocked and supported to provide the best nursing care I can.
What led you to choose this career, and what steps did you take to get into it?
The idea of travel nursing is pretty much what sold me on a career in nursing at all. I knew I enjoyed health sciences and biology, and I wanted to be in a flexible field with a lot of options. I already had a B.S. (Bachelor of Science) in biology and was originally on the veterinary path, but once I learned about all the things I could do as a nurse, I decided to change course. Thanks to an accelerated BSN (Bachelor of Science in Nursing) program, I was able to get a second nursing degree for much cheaper and a lot less time commitment than veterinary school.
What are some of your favorite parts of the job?
The best parts are seeing different geographical areas, meeting new people/coworkers, and learning different tricks and treatments in medicine.
Are there any downsides?
Always being “new” can be emotionally and physically tiring. It can take a month or so just to get settled into your new town, and by then your contract is halfway up! I feel like I don’t learn all my coworkers’ names or where everything is until I’m almost done with my contract. While I’ve met some awesome people along the way, it also can be hard to make meaningful friendships with new people when you’re moving so often.
Is there anything about travel nursing that those of us on the outside would be surprised to know?
There is a thing called the Nurse Licensure Compact that allows a nurse to work in thirty states under the same license as long as your home state license is part of the Compact. Having a Compact license makes working in multiple states much easier for travel nurses since there are no delays waiting for each new state to review your credentials.
What makes you successful in this line of work?
The personality traits that benefit me most in this line of work are that I’m adaptable, flexible, a quick learner, and an extrovert.
What are one or two things someone should know before committing to being a travel nurse?
I would recommend that any nurse who wants to transition to travel be very comfortable in their chosen specialty. You need to have at least a couple of years’ experience in that unit. As a traveler, you are expected to take a full patient assignment (meaning a full roster of patients) with minimal orientation to your new unit. While it’s easy enough to ask people where equipment is or how to get around the hospital, you’re expected to be fully capable and competent in your nursing practice before you walk in the door.
It also can be helpful to take your first travel assignment somewhat close to your home. That way, you can get a feel for the nuances of travel nursing without the added stress of being far from home. But then again, some people like to jump headfirst into the deep end!
Is there an interesting, provocative, or funny story from your work or travels that you’d like to share?
Some of the most eye-opening work I’ve done was when I was volunteering with a medical team in Lima, Peru. There are so many fewer medical staff and resources compared to what we’re used to having here in the US. People live with so much less and are so grateful for any care they are able to get. People who abuse the emergency systems in the US (which happens a lot) have no idea how privileged they truly are.
What is your favorite or most trusted piece of travel advice?
Always have backups of your documents and banking info! Better yet, load copies of your passports, IDs, and credit cards to encrypted cloud space so you can always have access even if your hard-copies and/or phone are stolen. You can get up to 15 GB of free cloud space with a Gmail account, making your important info accessible from any place with an internet connection.
Do you have any advice for someone looking to make a move far from home or adopt a more nomadic lifestyle?
Once again, put all your important files into Google Drive or some other cloud storage so that all your files are easy to access wherever you go as long as you can access the internet.
As for personal items, less is definitely more when you’re always on the go. Try to shrink your wardrobe to items that can be used for multiple situations. Invest in a few comfortable and quality shoes and get rid of the rest; shoes can be very bulky to travel with. Finally, try to only keep items that have multiple uses. Bowls with lids can also be Tupperware, clothespins can also be chip clips, and of course, your phone can be your camera, scanner, stereo, life assistant, etc.
Is there anything else you’d like people to know about you, your career, or any of the places you’ve been?
Before I went to nursing school, I worked as a horse wrangler on a dude ranch in Colorado! If I hadn’t gotten into nursing school, I’d probably still be doing that.
Thanks so much, Megan!
**Responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity. All photos were provided by Megan.
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