During the pandemic, as hospitals across the country have swelled with COVID-19 patients, the need for nurses has increased, specifically for travel nurses who take assignments in hospitals that have short-term staffing needs. During the pandemic, demand for intensive care unit (ICU) travel nurses nationwide jumped 281 percent.
Bethany Vaughan, RN, is a travel nurse at North Mississippi Medical Center (NMMC), one of the largest rural hospitals in the country in Tupelo, Mississippi. Though many travel nurses take assignments far away from home, Vaughan, a Mississippi native, chose to stay within her state to be closer to loved ones. The town has outwardly expressed its gratitude for travel nurses like Vaughan and distributed care kits for all the nurses in the COVID-19 unit, curated by the Tupelo Convention & Visitor’s Bureau. Here, in her own words, she shares what life has been like for her as a travel nurse working in the ICU during the pandemic.
I pretty much always knew I wanted to be a nurse someday—that or a veterinarian. My mom was an emergency nurse for 18 years and then became a nurse practitioner, so I grew up hearing stories about what her job was like. I studied nursing in college and graduated in May 2019. I specifically wanted to work in the ICU because I felt that was where God was calling me.
In July 2019, I got a job in a trauma ICU unit in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, about an hour from where I lived. I took the job and got a one-bedroom apartment close to the hospital, although most of the time I lived with my parents and commuted the hour.
In March 2020, a floor at the hospital where I worked was transformed into a COVID-19 unit. All of the ICU nurses were pulled to the COVID-19 ICU and expected to work it multiple times a pay period. We were assigned more patients than was typical. Typically as an ICU nurse, you are assigned two patients, or sometimes one if you have a very sick patient that needs constant care. But during the pandemic, there have been so many COVID-19 patients that in my hospital, we were assigned between two and four each. Between the hour-long drive and the stressful work environment, it was a lot to handle. I had heard travel nursing offered more money than I was currently making, so I kept the idea of it in the back of my mind, in case I could find a position through travel nursing closer to home.
The idea of travel nursing really intrigued me, but I was newly engaged and didn’t want to be too far from my family or fiance. The way travel nursing works is you contact a travel nursing agency and tell a recruiter where you’re willing to travel, what you hope to be paid, how many hours a week you want to work, and what type of nursing you do. Then, the recruiter comes to you with potential assignments. The assignments are meant to be short-term and the agency helps you find a place to live. Some agencies provide a stipend for living expenses, including housing.
One day, I was researching nursing jobs and saw that North Mississippi Medical Center was hiring. The hospital is about an hour from where my fiance lives and had a great reputation, so I really wanted to work there. I contacted my recruiter to ask about the position. Normally, they would not hire a nurse with only a year of experience, but because of COVID-19, the need was so great so I got the job and started working there in August 2020 on a six-week contract.
My hope is to be a light for people in their darkest days.
Similarly to in Tuscaloosa, the nurses in the COVID-19 ICU unit at NMMC are assigned between two and four patients, which is a lot. This is something ICU nurses across the country—in both cities and rural areas—are experiencing. The entire nation is experiencing a nursing shortage, so the need for more nurses in rural areas like where I am is great.
NMMC is a reputable hospital, but like many hospitals, it was not prepared to handle this type of crisis. Before the pandemic, we’ve never had a need for more ventilators or oxygen pressure. Being in a rural area, it isn’t easy for us to get more of these life-saving supplies. Somehow, we’ve always just had enough.
As an ICU nurse, I assume total care of each patient, therefore I must notice even the most subtle changes in a head-to-toe assessment, vital signs, and labs. Severe cases of COVID-19 affect the lungs and can cause organs to shut down. When that happens, we administer medicine to help support the organs in need. These patients need constant monitoring and care.
Despite our best efforts, not all COVID-19 patients survive. For safety reasons, patients’ families aren’t allowed to be with them, so it’s the nurses who are holding patients’ hands and spending their final moments with them, often helping them call or video chat with loved ones. They tell me to tell their family that they love them. In these moments, I’ll hold their hand and tell them that I’m here. I feel God has specifically called me to be placed in these situations to calm not only the patient in these final moments but their families. My hope is to be a light for people in their darkest days.
I remember one patient who was nearing the end of her life. It was clear and she knew it. Together we pulled up some of her favorite Christian songs on YouTube and sang them together. It’s moments like that I know that even though it’s hard and even though it’s heartbreaking, I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be.
Being a COVID-19 ICU nurse, it’s important to look after your own mental health. This is a hard job. What helps me most is prayer. I pray on my drive to work for the ability to stay strong for the patients and their families. When I’m not working, I just try to do things that I enjoy to keep my mind off of work. I try to do some physical activity or spend time with my fiance daydreaming about our wedding. There have been a few times when I’ve just started crying out of nowhere. At work, I’m focused on just trying to do my job and be there for the patients and their families; I’m not focused on myself. But it comes out like that sometimes. Despite this sadness, the love I have for my job overpowers it.
The need for COVID-19 ICU nurses is still great, including at NMMC. My initial six-week contract has expired three times since I initially took the job and I’ve renewed it every time. I’m about to sign it again. As a travel nurse, I’m not sure what the future holds for me after COVID-19. Maybe I will be able to stay at NMMC even after the nursing need has gone down, or I might take an assignment at another hospital. But right now the pandemic isn’t over yet, so I’m focused on where I am.
*As told to Emily Laurence
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