Mary Ann Thomas: Brown Queer Travel Writer

Stethoscopes & Suitcases: Life as a Travel Nurse

My closest aunt and a lot of my cousins are nurses, but for the longest time I had not thought of nursing as an option for myself. For a lot of Indian immigrants’ kids, becoming a nurse isn’t enough because we’re pushed to become doctors. But I always knew that I wanted to travel for work while contributing to the places I visited. I learned that nursing could offer that flexibility, and it’s a helping profession—plus, we get to wear professional pajamas. I figured I’d apply to nursing school; if I hated it, I could back out.

Four years later, I didn’t back out. After nursing school, I moved from my home in New Jersey to Washington, DC, for my first nursing job where I first met travel nurses. Travel nursing allows a nurse to pick almost any place in the United States, usually a hospital that has an acute shortage of experienced nurses, and work there for three months to a year. In addition to the salary, nurses will often receive housing allowances, moving stipends, and meal stipends, which are all tax free. The money ends up being so good that some travelers only work six months out of the year. Can you imagine a six-month vacation?

After speaking with the travel nurses that I worked with, I knew I wanted this lifestyle because I had been itching to take a cross-country bike trip and live in new cities. After two years working in DC, I was qualified to become a travel nurse and was offered a job after every single interview I had. By becoming a travel nurse, I found jobs with no commitment other than the stated dates on my contract. In the past four years, I’ve lived and worked in New York City, Anchorage, San Francisco, and San Diego.

Besides being able to explore the new cities that I’ve moved to, I’ve been able to stack my shifts and get up to eight days off in a row due to working 12-hour shifts, three days a week. I’ve gone on backcountry trips and learned new things, like cross-country skiing and wilderness skills. I spend more days a week playing than I do working, and that makes long 12-hour shifts totally worth it. I recently went to Yosemite for a backpacking trip when I had six days off. I took six months off for my cross-country bike tour in 2014, and since then, I take at least a month off—sometimes three—between each contract. On adventures, being trained as a nurse comes in handy in case of injuries. I can dress a wound when a friend cuts herself, and I know what I’m supposed to do when I sprain my ankle—that peace of mind itself is priceless (and could save me and my friends an urgent care bill).

Changing jobs every few months has made me an independent, adaptable nurse and forced me to prioritize and advocate for my patients. I don’t worry about management, interpersonal drama, or whether the staff will like me, because I’m only working there on a short-term basis. I focus on spending time with the patient and family to provide top-quality care. I’ve worked at seven hospitals and know that while each has different policies and equipment, my job as a nurse doesn’t change. I’ve learned to stand up for myself, negotiate contracts, and request time off because I always know the hospital needs me more than I need them.

I’m a critical care nurse, which means I manage patients who require close monitoring and often, machines to help them breathe. But I might not do this forever. With this kind of experience, some of the nurses I know have gone on to become coordinators for organ donation centers and work in offices; others have become flight nurses. As their lifestyles have changed, they have been able to change their careers as well. When I first went to nursing school, I thought I might regret picking a major that confined me. How wrong was I? Nursing has opened so many doors in my life that I didn’t know existed.

When I start a new job at a hospital or clinic and the staff asks me my name and who I am, I say, “I’m the new traveler.” And I love that title.

Originally published in On She Goes.

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