In her nearly six years as a travel nurse, Charlotte Loyd has carved out a life of adventure: working in places like Nantucket and the U.S. Virgin Islands, taking long road trips to new assignments with family, vacationing abroad with friends in the same profession between contracts.
“For this point in my life, it actually works great,” said Loyd, 51.
It’s the kind of life that agencies for traveling nurses, known as “travelers,” promote: postcard-worthy photos of destinations and the promise of new professional and personal experiences. “Pursue a career that moves you,” says the website of one staffing firm.
“Our lifestyle is very awesome,” said Emily Cheng, who recently stopped working as a travel nurse after nearly three years to create an app, MedVenture, for traveling health-care professionals. “We get to see parts of the country that are super beautiful and meet really incredible people and have once-in-a-lifetime experiences.”
Sometimes the job allows nurses to find an area that they love and stay there, but with more flexibility than they would have in a staff job. Brody Eick, 38, has lived in Palm Springs, Calif., for more than three years traveling among hospitals in the area. He can take time between contracts for vacations with friends or time with family.
“One of the blessings of being a travel nurse is you can really find an area you love and bounce around, as long as you know the hospitals,” he said.
Travel nurses make up just about 2 percent of the nursing population in the United States, said April Hansen, an executive vice president of Aya Healthcare, a travel nursing agency. The job has gained more visibility over the past year, as understaffed hospitals have turned to travelers to fill crucial gaps during the pandemic.
Before the pandemic, Hansen said, about 9,400 travel nurse jobs were open. During the height of the first wave, that rose to about 14,000, mostly concentrated in specific hot spots. Then things got really serious from the end of November through the end of December, with a peak of about 30,000 jobs open.
“The demand was unlike anything we had ever seen,” Hansen said.
Because demand was so high, she said, hospitals in some cases were willing to pay two to three times a normal pay package for some intense assignments.
Loyd, who has worked contracts in California, Massachusetts, Texas, Arizona and Washington since the pandemic started, said the work has been “extremely heavy.” She described running out of supplies and equipment, working constantly without eating or getting a break, and seeing patients decline quickly.
Eick, a travel nurse for nearly six years, was working in California’s Riverside County at the start of 2020, when the emergency room was filling up with what seemed like a “weird viral pneumonia.”
Aside from a 10-week assignment in a Phoenix hospital as a covid crisis nurse, Eick has spent the past year at different hospitals in Southern California working in emergency rooms and intensive care units. It’s been “nonstop covid,” he said.
“In the ICU, it has been really tough emotionally and mentally, besides the physical part,” he said. He said nurses had to hold an iPad up to patients on a ventilator so their family could say goodbye or sing to them.
“I would promise that family that I would stand there and hold their hand so that they didn’t die alone,” he said. Then, after losing a patient, he would have to run into another room to try to save someone else’s life.
Eick said despite being careful with his own personal protective equipment, he ended up catching the virus around Thanksgiving weekend after caring for covid-positive patients a few nights in a row.
“I was lucky that I didn’t have to worry about coming home and potentially getting someone in my household sick,” he said.
Even in non-pandemic times, traveling has its challenges.
“You’re moving away from your friends and everything you know, and that’s hard,” said Cheng, who is from New York. “Starting a new job is hard, going to a new area is hard, not having your support system.”
She and MedVenture co-founder Ryan Cogdill, another travel nurse, started the app “out of loneliness, basically,” Cogdill said. The app, which launched less than two months ago, lets traveling health-care workers in the same area meet each other, create hangouts or events, join discussion boards, and rate and review hospital facilities.
They both took a crisis contract in Hawaii from September through January to work on the project when they weren’t working in hospitals.
Cogdill said they went into overdrive to launch the app because they saw how much their peers needed support and community.
“Just being able to see each other for the hard work we’re doing and being able to move through that together is really important,” Cheng said.
Skylar Wright, 26, of Indiana, acknowledged it can be difficult to start a new job and spend so much time alone — especially when it’s hard for people to come visit. And she said it is exhausting to pack up her belongings and cat, Leo, for frequent moves.
Wright had planned to start traveling in April 2020, but she stayed on staff at her hospital in Indiana to help after the pandemic started. She’s now on her second contract, in South Miami, after spending four months working in Charlotte. She said she hasn’t been able to travel much because of covid, and she only took a week off between contracts to drive to her new assignment — which, at least, is in a warm spot for the winter months.
“Here, I go to the beach all the time,” she said.
Wright, who has been a nurse for 2½ years, said she wants to keep traveling for a while and see as many places as she can.
“I definitely want to go to California at some point,” she said, as wells as Arizona, Texas and Boston. “I could make a list for days.”
Read more on travel during the pandemic:
Flying: Pandemic packing | Airport protocol | Staying healthy on planes | Fly or drive? | Layovers
Road trips: Tips | Rental cars | Best snacks | Long-haul trains | Rest stops | Cross-country drive
Destinations: Hawaii | Puerto Rico | Private islands | 10 covid-free spots | Caribbean | Mexico