We sat down with some stellar travel nurses and asked them about the challenges and triumphs they’ve experienced in their travels. Travel nurse Nancy Koopmeiners discusses experiencing the freedom of travel nursing, avoiding hospital politics, and preventing burnout.
How did you get started as a travel nurse?
I’m originally from California, but when I got married, I moved to Minnesota, where my now-ex is from. We raised our kids there and I could never really get used to the snow. The breaking point for me came one year when we had another huge snow storm. The grocery store is just three blocks away, but the snow was so high that I couldn’t make it there. I thought, that’s it! I’m done. And that’s when I started traveling.
My first assignment was in sunny San Diego. Now, I come out to California for half the year and spend the rest of the time in Minnesota, where my girls are.
What do you love about travel nursing?
My favorite thing about travel nursing is that I don’t have to be involved in hospital politics. I come in, I spread my sunshine for three months, and then I get to leave. If an assignment is good, I stay on longer.
I also love getting so much experience. You gain a lot of skills travel nursing. You have to have a really strong foundation in nursing first — I was a nurse for 13 years before I started, and I still find myself learning new skills at every assignment. The point I’m at now, I can walk into any hospital, take the one-day orientation, and be good to go. You want to be able to walk into your new job and know you won’t do any harm. I worry about nurses just starting out. I think it’s essential to have a lot of experience under your belt before you jump into travel nursing.
I love also that I can travel with my dog, Harper. He’s a big guy, an old English bulldog, and he’s my constant companion. He travels with me wherever I go, and he’s a great companion on the road. The only downside is he’s lousy at doing his half of the driving. Such a freeloader.
Each assignment, you get to reinvent yourself, which is something that I like — I think there are some ways that being a loner really suits the travel nurse life. You have to have that dream to leave wherever you’re from and get out and travel and see the world. You have to be ready to spread your wings and see what else is out there. You never know who you’ll meet, it’s a big country out there. A lot of nurses stay in one area, and they get a little bit burnout.
I think the change has really prevented burnout for me. It’s helped to see the profession from the perspective of a lot of different nurses, through traveling.
I remember one time, in Long Beach, the hospital was really busy, people were in the waiting room for six hours and the patients got really angry, of course, after all that time. I asked the staff, how do you handle the upset patients? And one nurse said, right away, I just say, “I’m very sorry that you had to wait, but you’re here now and I’m here to help.” You have to gain control over the situation, and you can’t get offended because they’re upset. You can’t take it personally. That advice has really stayed with me.
One traveler from the south once said to me, if you can’t handle some stress or intense politics for three months, you should get out of the profession. That’s stuck with me, too.
I’ve also had the pleasure of working with some really good recruiters. When my car got broken into and I lost most of my possessions, my recruiter sent me $150 to buy clothes. And another recruiter sent me a birthday cake for my birthday. It wasn’t that they sent those things, it was that they did them out of the kindness of their own hearts.
What challenges do you face as a travel nurse?
My biggest challenge is finding housing. I’ve lived in an extended stay because it was hard for me to find housing, especially traveling with my dog.
Sometimes it does get lonely. I think younger travel nurses have it easier — it’s easier to make friends, go out to the bars after work, spend money more liberally. But, I’m nearing retirement, so I’m really conscious of needing to save, and I’ve discovered on the road that I’m more of a loner, I like to stay at home. But sometimes, it’s been a little bit of a challenge.
I’ve discovered that MeetUp can help when I want to connect. If I want to go out to do something, take up a hobby, or join in an event, there are MeetUp groups in every city I’ve been to. That’s worked out nicely.
What advice would you give to a travel nurse just starting out?
First, make sure you have all your documents on your phone. So many times, people will say, I didn’t receive those papers, and you can just forward them on from your phone. It’s so important. And, if you don’t have a smartphone, get one. That’s like your lifeline.
So, carry those documents with you, and get well-organized. You have to be organized. Only bring along what you really need. I see these travelers packed to the gill, and I think, do you really need that stuff? I just bring two trunks, and everything I need fits in there. If it doesn’t fit, I don’t bring it.
You have to know your comfort zone and compile a list of questions to ask your recruiters. You want to know that you’ll be safe, taken care of, and that the job is within your skill set. Know what your hardlines are. Know what you will do and what you won’t do, and learn from your mistakes. Ask your recruiter questions that help you figure out just what the assignment will be like. And if the answers don’t work for what you want, don’t take the assignment.
Also, before you start traveling, you should really gain some experience. I would wait five years before traveling and really build a firm foundation in travel nursing. I’ve encountered newer nurses who really have holes in their knowledge. And I think, you really gain a lot from being a nurse at a home facility.