Have you ever wondered about travel nursing and how you could make it work for you? I interviewed Austin Rogers, an emergency room (ER) travel nurse currently on assignment in California, about some of his most memorable moments from travel nursing so far.

When did you first hear about travel nursing? How did you decide to go down this road?

I heard about travel nursing while I was taking my prerequisites for nursing school when I was 23 years old. When I heard the details of being a traveling nurse, they were pretty glamorized. Nurses at that time were making six figures, and did not pay for their housing or airfare. To make that much money today you really have to work the system, and you can only get to six figures if you factor in any payments for your housing, meals, incidentals, and relocation fees. I’m not complaining by any means, but from what I’ve heard from veteran travelers, travel nursing isn’t what it used to be. I loved the idea of traveling—seeing new places, getting free housing, and being paid more than staff nurses generally make.

Where did you start your nursing career?

I started my career as a staff nurse at an ER in Springfield, Missouri. As a brand new baby nurse, straight out of the gate, I was making $18.50 per hour. Springfield has eight nursing schools and two massive level-one trauma centers, with their sister facilities scattered about. The only thing these two large hospitals agreed upon was how low to pay their employees. If you don’t like your pay, don’t worry, you’re replaceable!

Travel nurses started coming to our facility during trauma season to help with the massive influx of patients. These traveling nurses sometimes had fewer responsibilities—fewer traumas, strokes, cardiac arrests, codes in progress, and triage. At the time, they didn’t have as many challenging patients to take care of. I became good friends with a few of the travelers that came through, and they began to tell me about their lives and their pay. They were making $48 an hour, with a $400 travel reimbursement there, $400 for return travel, and $500 per week for housing (tax free). When I saw a friend’s paycheck, I knew I needed to get the travel ball in motion.

Where did you start your traveling adventure?

I did make one early mistake: I was too excited and just wanted to get out of Missouri, so I was spontaneous and irrational, and jumped at my first offer. I only had one recruiter through one agency, and I was easily persuaded by the intense pressure my recruiter put on me. My first assignment was in Lanham, Maryland. After a short time of working there I realized that I was actually making less money than staff nurses at this facility.

At my first hospital, the patient loads were unreal, unsafe, and not fair to the patients or the RN who was spread too thin. As a traveler, I quickly realized that techs avoided me because they knew I had a lot of questions and would often need help. Codes were probably the scariest thing to do at this hospital. I was taken advantage of as a traveling nurse at this facility. I’d typically have at least one intubated patient at the time of a code. The facility was so short-staffed that a code team would only be a charge nurse, a doctor, and me. I held on tight and worked my butt off every shift to keep my license. Incidentally, my first recruiter was fired during the time I worked at this facility, and the agency wasn’t kind to its employees.

Wow. So where did you go next?

My second assignment was in nearby Bethesda, Maryland, where I was making only equal to the staff rate.  \This was another situation where the staffing was low (naturally, this is the reason the hospital needs travelers). I was stretched even more thin, and I didn’t jive with the staff there—it was very cliquey and unfriendly. One day I had six very acute patients at once: one was intubated, one was receiving a heparin infusion, three were lower acuity, and one was a combative, hostile, and aggressive patient on K2 [synthetic marijuana] or PCP. This patient was being observed in the psychiatric pod with cameras. I felt unsafe with this assignment, and so I asked the physician to reevaluate the patient and possibly prescribe a sedative. The doctor refused, and a few minutes later the patient jumped up to the ceiling, ripped out the sprinkler head, and began flooding the entire ED.

Now that we have a patient flooding our basement and letting him out of the pod so that he doesn’t drown in the pod, we take him out into a glass room and finally get him medications. Meanwhile, the other staff members did not help me at all.

Yikes. I’m guessing you didn’t choose to extend that contract?

Oh no. I completed another hell of an assignment and finally got my DC license. This is when I met my favorite coworkers and friends at my DC hospital assignment. Finally a location with cool people, good money, and in a really cool city!

The patients were very challenging, don’t get me wrong, but I can handle just about anything with the right people behind me.

So it sounds like the DC assignment was very big on teamwork.

Exactly! A lot of locations are more “you’re on your own.” I liked the team atmosphere, it was a lot of fun and made it more bearable, even though staffing in that hospital was equal to or worse than some of the others.

Where to next?

I was actually given an attractive offer to extend my contract at the DC facility, so I did that contract for 13 more weeks. I was really sad to leave the group of people I had become most fond of in the past few years. When the contract was completed, I went on a much-needed vacation to South America. I was so excited to take a trip after working so hard on so many back-to-back assignments. Unfortunately, while we were there, the place where I was staying was burglarized. I was awoken at gunpoint, pistol whipped, and stabbed a couple of times.

That sounds horrific. Is everyone OK?

Yes. Thankfully, because of the flexibility and income-security travel nursing has afforded me, I was able to take additional time off for physical and mental healing after this incident. There’s not another job at you can work 8 months out of the year and control your schedule!

Austin Rogers

Austin Rogers

When you were feeling ready, where did you go next?

San Diego, baby! I took a pediatric assignment in a hospital downtown. Night shift was rough, but it was right on the ocean, and I was surfing in January. (By surfing, I mean I would go out to the ocean, drink a lot of saltwater, nearly vomit, and totally get my butt kicked by the waves. But still! In January!)

I loved this assignment because of the weather, the chill personalities of my coworkers, and the amazing stuff to do outdoors all year. I was able to round up all the local coworkers to go on adventures every day we had off. It was amazing!

You’re making me very jealous.

But wait, there’s more! I just arrived at my next assignment that starts in just a few days in Lakeport, California. I’ve already taken three months off this year (and it’s only June!). So far in 2016, I went sailing in the Virgin Islands, camped all over California, and explored the West Coast. I’m already in love with Lakeport. I’ll be making nearly the same amount of money as I was in DC, even working 12 fewer hours per week. And it’s absolutely breathtaking here. The cost of living is very low, too—I’ve got a two-bedroom, two-bath apartment with a two-car garage in a gated community. Did I mention the heated pool with a pool house, marina/boat dock,and a yacht club? All for $1395 a month.

Well it’s official, I’m moving. Any advice to give to others starting their travel nursing journey, who want to live the dream you’ve described?

Although not impossible to work about it, as I did, I would recommend not to bring a dog, and not to be a homeowner (but do have your name on utilities of your parents house, and have your mail shipped there). Work to try and be able to afford an RV (motor home or fifth wheel) so that moving is not such a hassle every three months. Decide whether you want an amazing location/experience or you want the MONEY!

Make sure that you have AT LEAST four companies under your belt—this is crucial! Be ready to break hearts when you move away from them. Travel while you can, and quit making little excuses. Stop saying “I’ll be ready when…”

And lastly, if you’ve got school loans through the hospital that made a contract, BREAK IT! You WILL make it back—plus some—in no time!

Laura Kinsella

Laura Kinsella, BSN, RN, CEN, is an emergency room nurse in Washington, DC.

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