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The forgotten year: The impact of COVID on travel nursing

2020 will be a year branded in our collective memory. The 20/20 vision puns shared at midnight on Jan. 1 could never foretell all that was to come in March, as facilities in cities and rural communities were overrun by a deadly pandemic.

The arrival of a vaccine in early 2021 provided simultaneous hope and concern for many healthcare professionals, and the rise of the Delta variant and other strains of the virus have illuminated the complexities of COVID, pressuring facilities to change their processes and policies.

The last two years have been trying for the entire healthcare industry, from burnout and long, back-to-back shifts at understaffed hospitals to the fatigue that comes with watching patients breathe their last breath alone in a hospital bed. Nursing school doesn’t quite prepare us for moments like these, and for many, it’s taking its toll.

So how are nurses staying resilient? We reached out to one of our travel nurses, Courtney, to learn how the pandemic has impacted her travel nursing journey, which most recently brought her to Margate, Florida.

Ethos: How did you get into travel nursing?

Courtney: I graduated nursing school in 2015 and started out working as an ortho surgical nurse. I did that for almost a year, and it just was not my calling. I wanted to do something a little bit more fast paced, and so I worked as a regular staff nurse in a local Kansas City ER for a couple of years. My current manager used to work as a travel nurse and is very close to a lot of people at Ethos, so that’s how I ended up here. I did some local travel jobs in Kansas City with them, and then I finally was like, “I’m going to spread my wings and try to see what it’s like to leave Kansas City.” So that’s how I ended up in Florida with Ethos.

E: Are you enjoying it? How long have you been there?

C: I just finished my fourth week. I’ve been here a total of a month, and it’s very different. I feel like maybe before COVID I might have enjoyed it a little bit more, but moving halfway across the country, it was just me and my dog (a four-year-old hound-beagle-lab mix). It’s been a huge transition, just getting used to that.

E: How has your job has changed with the rise in the pandemic?

C: I don’t even remember what it was like to be a nurse before COVID, it’s changed so much. When we first would see those patients, we would put everybody on one side of the ER with full garb—it was very scary. We didn’t really know a whole lot about it, and you didn’t have time to think about it.

We had to wear multiple masks, goggles, headpieces, and sometimes multiple gowns. If you thought you were going to come into contact with bodily fluid, you’d have to wear two gowns, two pairs of gloves, booties, all of that stuff. It changes your entire perspective. I’ve had to learn to be very flexible in everything I’m doing at work. Where I’m at right now, about 80-to-90% of the patients I’m seeing on a daily basis are COVID positive. Our hospital is beyond 100% capacity. You can’t just come out of a room, sit and drink a water bottle, and look at your monitors on your few patients. It’s constantly just circling around just to make sure that this person’s oxygen’s okay and this person’s oxygen is okay – it’s huge difference.

E: What’s it like on the front lines?

C: It’s exhausting. I’m better now than I was when I got down here—it was like shell shock. From talking to my coworkers, the last month is the worst it’s been since the pandemic started. The hospital I worked at is not a trauma center, and they’ve never seen these numbers. Every hospital last week in the Southern Florida area was on diversion, which means we’d try to avoid having ambulances come in unless it’s a life-or-death situation. But when every hospital is closed, patients have to go somewhere, and that’s why they ended up in hallway beds, in beds in the ambulance bay, in chairs. We do everything that we possibly can so once they come back, they can be admitted immediately, but may sit in the ER because they’re so full upstairs. So were becoming floor nurses instead of ER nurses. It’s been a lot.

E: How has COVID impacted your desire to work in this field?

C: When you decide to become a nurse, you just accept that you’re going to get thrown into situations that are scary. So, I’ve never really been scared of COVID. Somebody has to do it, and it might as well be me. This is what I went to school for. It definitely has made me, on many days, reconsider whether I made the right career choice. It’s changed me, it’s changed all of us. It’s hard because we want to take care of people because that’s why we’re nurses. We have compassion in us, but it just gets exhausting after a while. You keep thinking there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, but these days it can be hard to see that light. It’s hard to have that motivation.

I feel very honored to be travel nurse because I feel like it saved me. It gives me something to look forward to, something new. Traveling gives me the perspective to meet new people and do new things, so it gives me hope in all of this darkness.

E: What do you do to stay resilient?

C: Well right now, luckily, I’m in Florida and I live eight miles from the beach. I literally spend every single day at the ocean. I literally just sit there. I don’t even listen to music, I just sit and watch the waves. It is so peaceful and relaxing. That’s been the calm of my storm. I call my mom probably like 20 times a day and stay in touch with my friends in healthcare who understand what I’m going through. Working out also gets my mind off it. I try not to think about work when I’m not at work.

E: What’s next for you?

C: After this my plan is to come back home to the Midwest. I still plan to travel and sporadically take a crazy assignment somewhere, but being away from everything and on my own is very lonely and hard some days. It’s teaching me a lot about myself and making me do things that I would never do before. I don’t see myself becoming a regular staff nurse again, for a long time. Travel nursing is hard and it has its cons for sure, but I’ve met so many people.

E: What’s it been like working for Ethos?

C: My recruiter, Drew, is amazing. I’ve had many conversations with him super early in the morning, super late at night, during my workdays in the break room when I thought I couldn’t make it anymore. It’s a support team you don’t necessarily have when you’re a staff nurse. They understand what you’re going through. And when I was trying to do travel nursing last summer, I felt like I was just a number to them. Ethos is very much the opposite of that. My recruiter is always on top of it. I know that I can always call Jeff if I need anything at all. They actually care about you, so I love working at Ethos.

E: Any advice for other travel nurses and aspiring travel nurses?

C: More people need to be travel nurses. After seeing and learning what I have as a travel nurse and the opportunities that I’ve gotten because of it, I wouldn’t take back any of the single worst days of my travel nursing life for it. Everybody has rough days, whether it’s in healthcare or not. I do know that I would probably still be a nurse, but I don’t know that I would have stuck with travel nursing, if I wasn’t with Ethos. You’re a travel nurse for a reason, whether the hospital is short-staffed or whatever the reason. There are days where you may just want to throw your stethoscope on the ground and walk out the door. But just close your eyes and know that it’ll be okay. You can do it.

Ready to start your travel nursing journey with Ethos? Contact our team to see how you can make a difference in communities across the country.



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