The Life of a Traveling Nurse
Jen Fox proves that being a nurse doesn’t mean having to stay in one hospital and one place. For the past five years, Fox has been a traveling nurse who has helped patients in hospitals and healthcare facilities all over the country—Arizona, California, Washington, Colorado, Michigan, Florida, Texas, Ohio, and New York City. Now, she’s currently volunteering with Project Hope to teach nursing students in Shanghai, China and is exploring life as a nurse on the other side of the globe.
Although she began her education with an eye towards medical school, Jen Fox decided that nursing would be a better and shorter route of education for her. She earned her Bachelor of Science in Nursing at Grand Valley State University and went on to earn her Masters of Science in Nursing at Ferris State University. While with Project Hope, she is teaching classes for intensive care nursing, nursing English, and global health. She also plans to pursue her CCRN (Certification for Adult, Pediatric, and Neonatal Critical Care Nurses) later this year. Some of her recent efforts have involved work in the Cardiovascular Intensive Care Units in bustling hospitals of New York City.
Fox chronicles her experiences with nursing around the country and world in her blog, Wanderlust Nurse, and with her Twitter account, @wanderlustnurse, with pictures and commentary on how different life is for a nurse who frequently needs to take her skills and know-how to a different hospital and adjust to a new environment every few months.
Read our full interview with Jen Fox for her expert insight into life of travel nursing and how much it can differ from being a staff nurse.
Tell us more about your background and education. What led you to go into nursing in the first place, and then to enhance your education by earning your MSN (Master of Science in nursing) degree?
I wasn’t one of those students who always knew she wanted to become a nurse. But I was good at math and science, and originally contemplated med school, but decided against it because of the length of schooling. So, I felt nursing was a good option.
As part of all of the jobs I’ve held (grocery store employee, server, nurse), I’ve always ended up being in a position of training new employees. So, I would say I’m a natural teacher. It made sense to me to go back to school for my MSN in nursing education so I could put the education to practice. I also wanted to be one of those teachers who actually still work as a nurse. I think it makes me more of an authority, plus I still really enjoy working at the bedside.
I also had the opportunity to teach clinicals for nursing students in an AND (associate’s degree in nursing) program, while going for my MSN. Ferris offered paid tuition for the course, “Clinical Instruction in Nursing”, if I agreed to teach a group of clinical students. I was also paid mileage because I had to commute an hour and a half each way to do so. If not for that class, I really wouldn’t have discovered my passion for teaching nursing students. I went on to teach clinicals for a different ADN program for 2 years after that, on top of my full-time staff job and school.
Did you hold any past positions that have played a significant role in where you are today?
I held my first nursing position for 6 years, right out of nursing school. It was there that I fell in love with taking care of open-heart surgery patients. I love the complexity, and also, the life and death, because without the surgery, many patients would die. I was in a unique position to help educate patients to make better choices after surgery.
I would also say my first travel nursing assignment in Monterey, CA, helped me continue to pursue travel nursing. I actually had a very good experience, which made me want to explore more of the country. I hear so many negative stories about travel nursing, and it just makes me wonder about the nurse. I can go to work, and it may be hell, but I also have the time outside of work to explore. There was only one contract that I actually hated, but more so because I felt I wasn’t able to be a good nurse, to give the care that I wanted to give to the patients. Most days I felt that I barely had my head above water, and that my patients were barely being tended to. That made me really dislike the job. But I was in Florida, in the winter, staying with my brother, sister-in-law, and my niece. So the sunshine and family time made up for it.
If not for my clinical teaching experience, I might not have wanted to volunteer to teach nursing in China. Classroom teaching is a whole different game than clinical teaching though. I’m glad that I have the opportunity to be here, but I don’t think I’m ready to give up my bedside practice just yet.
How did you come to the realization that you wanted to get into travel nursing? What have you found are some of the benefits?
I first read about travel nursing in a nursing magazine when I was actually still in nursing school. I thought that it was such an amazing concept, getting to travel and work, and that I would love to do it someday. I started working straight out of nursing school in 2004, and started back to school for my MSN in 2005, so that really took all of my focus. As graduation neared in 2010, I decided I would quit my job and start travel nursing. I haven’t looked back.
The main benefit for me is the flexibility. I can literally work when I want. If I want to take a month off, I can (because I save my money and have a spouse who works freelance as a graphic designer). I usually work about 9 months out of the year. Another benefit is the travel itself. I really enjoy living in new places and really exploring. I try to fit as much sightseeing in 3 months as I can, often seeing more of a city than the locals.
Tell us more about your responsibilities in the professional positions you’ve held. How has earning your degrees prepared you for those roles?
As a nurse with about a year of experience on night shift, I was approached to help fill in as charge nurse. I was blown away that I was asked to do that at the age of 25, with most of my coworkers being at least a decade older than myself. I think my manager saw something in me that I couldn’t recognize in myself so early in my career, but I’m thankful she did.
In my staff position, I became a primary preceptor for quite a few new nurses. I was responsible for working directly with them for about 6 weeks, to make sure they were learning what they needed to become good nurses. I was respected as someone who was knowledgeable, but also someone who could relate. I was not one of those nurses who “eat their young,” but I was pretty young myself. While precepting new nurses, I was also in school for my MSN. I was learning about teaching adult learners, and was able to really use that as a preceptor, as well as during clinical instruction.
As a clinical instructor, I was responsible for 10 students in the hospital setting, supervising them during medication administration, grading care plans, and ensuring they were developing critical thinking skills. I felt more pressure there because I often wondered about passing someone that I was a little unsure about, how they ended up. I didn’t want to be responsible for that.
What do you gain from your different roles in the nursing community—nurse, nursing instructor, blogger, social media voice?
As a nurse, I gain the satisfaction that I chose the right career. I honestly still really love my job. I don’t know how many people can say that. While everyday might not be easy, I really do make a difference in patients’ lives. I get to connect with people in a very intense and emotional time in their lives, and I really cherish that.
As an instructor, I get the opportunity to watch students grow into the nurses they will become. I love being part of that moment when something “clicks” for a student, and know that I was a part of that. I also love school & learning myself, so I often am learning along with the students.
I’ve only recently started my travel nursing blog Wanderlust Nurse (www.wanderlustnurse.com), but felt that I had knowledge to share after working as a travel nurse for almost 5 years. I am passionate about nursing, and about travel nursing and wanted a way to share that. I also have been on twitter since 2009, @wanderlustnurse, and tweet about nursing, on top of my daily life of coffee, craft beer, and traveling. I have over 1700 followers, and really think it’s a great way to connect with other nurses. Social media has been a little challenging here in China though, as most things are blocked: Google-including Translate, Maps, Gmail; Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, & Snapchat. Instagram is the only one I can’t access through a VPN, so I’ve been silent there.
What is the most exciting or rewarding thing about the work you do?
When a patient or family member actually takes the time to say “Thank you,” it really makes it all worth it. Nursing is mostly a thankless profession, and I know that, but sometimes it’s just nice to hear.
I also really enjoy the intensity of working in the CVICU (Cardiovascular Intensive Care Unit), taking care of patients after open heart surgery. The patient comes right out of the OR (operating room), into the ICU, and I’m there to take care of them after this major operation. It really is an opportunity to use all of my knowledge and training to make sure the patient does well after surgery. I’m the first person they see when they wake up, and I get to tell them that surgery is over and that they are doing well. I also was able to see them through until they left the hospital (at my staff job) so I could see how they did after surgery, as well as educate them to help them live a healthier life afterwards. Patients who have a Coronary Artery Bypass Grafting surgery (CABG) often come in with a life-threatening heart attack, and get thrown into the surgery suddenly, as the only way to leave the hospital alive. When they do leave, it really is a great feeling.
What inspires the posts you write in your nursing blog?
As I mentioned, my blog was just recently launched. Lately, I have been writing about my volunteer teaching experiences in Shanghai. But I am also working on the travel nursing content. I have a list of topics that I need to write about because they are the common questions people have when looking into travel nursing. I plan to develop that content more, as well as write about my experiences in different hospitals and cities across the country.
How does being a travel nurse different than a non-travel nurse? What are some of the challenges that students should expect?
A travel nurse has to be ready for the unexpected, and hit the ground running. I usually only get a week of orientation, and that includes hospital, computer, and floor training. Most travel nursing companies require at least 1-2 years of experience before traveling. I had almost 6 years experience, and I felt only somewhat comfortable leaving my staff job. What I say now is, I already know how to be a nurse, but I don’t know where you keep your supplies, or maybe how to use your charting system. So those are the things I need to know in order to do my job when I arrive at a new hospital. But I have to prove myself at each new hospital, because the nurses don’t know me, so that can be challenging.
Travel nurses tend to get “dumped” on. A travel nurse might be taking the new admit over the staff nurses (who are sitting around doing nothing), or I end up with the more challenging patients. My assignment might be changed mid-shift, or I might be floated to another unit because travelers often float first.
Sometimes there is no option to extend a contract after 13 weeks, so there’s the constant packing and moving, which can be stressful. There’s the waiting for the next contract, which can come sometimes only days before the end of the current one. There’s the driving across the country, with the possibility of a contract being cancelled (which happened to me after not working for 6 months, driving from Michigan to California, and then was cancelled after one month).
Travel nurses are often far from home, so if something happens (good or bad), we just don’t get to pack up and go. We have a contract to uphold. Obviously if there was a death in the family, we hope the travel company and hospital would be understanding, but that’s not always the case. If we get sick, we don’t get paid, and often have to pay the company back for housing money because we missed work. So it’s a double whammy. For solo travel nurses, it can get lonely.
As far as the differences from being a staff nurse, a travel nurse has to keep all of his/her paperwork organized, where the hospital would do that for a staff nurse. I have to have a yearly physical, and take a drug test for each new contract. I have to get TB tests done about 2x/year. So there are a lot of medical records to keep track of. I keep my own health insurance because if I take time off between contracts, the company would not provide insurance. I have to plan to save for retirement, and may or may not get a company match. So a lot of the standard benefits one would get being a staff nurse, I don’t get as a travel nurse.
Which skills do you think are necessary for pursuing a degree in nursing?
I think you have to really want to be a nurse. It really takes a special person. But, I have heard of more students going into nursing for the schedule and the money, which is fine. A lot of people choose careers based on how much money they’ll make, but those people are never happy. Money can’t buy happiness. I can honestly say that I love my job. I love taking care of my patients. So I think there’s that part of the job that people should really have to want to be a nurse.
As far as other qualities, here’s a short list: organized, dependable, flexible, friendly, professional, teamwork-oriented, not afraid to ask questions, comfortable with technology, caring, empathetic, good communication skills, understanding, good listener, problem solver, focused on goals, stays calm in intense situations, good judgment & reasoning, critical thinker.
What advice do you have for students who are considering pursuing a nursing degree? How can students prepare themselves for the challenges?
Expect to be a slave to nursing school. It is one of the most demanding programs. It is very intense and tough. On top of classroom reading and writing, there is clinical paperwork to do as well. I was working about 30 hours a week when I was in nursing school to pay my living expenses, on top of taking out student loans. If I could have not worked, I think I could have focused a bit more on school, but I still did well. You really need to be organized, and have good time management skills. When your friends are going out to party, you might have to stay in to read 100 pages. It’s not glamorous at all, but if you get through it, you know you can get through just about anything. The pre-reqs are also really tough, but now a lot of schools are requiring a higher grade, and are much more competitive than when I was in nursing school. So my advice is to study a lot. And then study more.
I don’t think anyone is too old for nursing school either. When I was teaching clinicals, my oldest student was 62! He actually had to drop out of the program the year before because he had lung cancer and underwent chemo, but then re-enrolled. I had a lot of 2nd degree students, most of who were older than me. I was just proud of them for doing something most of them had always wanted to do.
To prepare, just know the time in nursing school is really, really hard, but that’s because the work is hard. As a nurse, you deal with life and death every single day, and if you can’t study and make it through nursing school, then you really don’t deserve to take care of patients when they are at their most vulnerable. It’s hard work, but it’s so worth it.
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