March 3, 2011

March 2011: Kathleen Wolgemuth, RN

travel nurse stories

My name is Kathleen Wolgemuth, a travel nurse, cowboy, fencer, creative writer … and this is my story. I became a travel nurse because I was terminally shy and worried that I was going to turn into a hermit who did the same thing every day for the rest of her life. My youngest sister told me, very earnestly, “You are in danger of becoming ‘single woman with cats,’ Kathleen!” I responded, perfectly reasonably, “I am a single woman with cats.” And then I started looking for a travel job.

I’d first heard about travel nursing from a seminar in my senior year of nursing school. It sounded great, and I filed it away under “scary things I’d like to do someday,” along with skydiving and traveling to Europe. But the speaker said you needed at least a year of experience, so I went on with my other plans for after graduation. By the time I’d been a nurse just over a year, I was crazy enough to think I was ready. I still haven’t been to Europe, but I’ve worked in 14 hospitals over the last decade, mostly as a traveler. And, during an assignment in California, I did go skydiving.

Gallup, NM was my first travel nurse assignment. I remember it took Derek, my recruiter, six weeks to find a hospital that would take a nurse one year out of school, with no travel experience. I was a terrified wreck. I literally stood in the halls outside of closed doors, working up the nerve to go see my patients. I was horrified to find that I was expected to work on my own after one day of orientation, though I’m not sure what I expected the first third of the assignment to be…training?

My electricity failed one of my first mornings on the job and I didn’t wake up until the manager of the apartment complex hammered on my door and explained that she was not a wake-up service, so she had better not get anymore calls from the hospital insisting she go check on missing staff. I couldn’t believe they didn’t drop my contract for the no-call-no-show. After that, I got a battery-operated alarm clock.

Making new friends is not easy for me. Like I said, when I started this work, I took shy to extreme levels. My first nursing job had trained some of it out of me, of course, but it was a tiny fifteen bed hospital in a small community. It was a safety zone that I didn’t know how to function outside of. I went into travel nursing hoping that I could force myself to learn to cope with new situations and, worse, new people. Surprisingly, it sort of worked.

I’d heard enough gossip about how everyone hates travelers that I expected to be disliked, but everyone was very kind, and mercifully willing to walk me through the first few weeks. Ever since then, I’m continually impressed by how openly the staff welcomes me as a traveler, even though I remain introverted with an unfortunate tendency toward sarcasm, especially when I’m nervous.

But life as a travel nurse has been good for me, and even though I haven’t collected hoards of correspondents or left whole units mourning my absence, I’ve learned to enjoy the people I meet for the time that I’m there. I’m a stronger, slightly less-fearful person now.

An interesting assignment in Lebanon, New Hampshire

I grew up in a town of less than 1,000 people, and I’ve never spent much time in cities. I’d never been around big hospitals before I started traveling. This was my 4th assignment, and I was just coming out of Boston like an Israelite after 40 years in the desert. This small-town girl hated everything about living in a “proper” city, and it was amazing to get up into Vermont and New Hampshire and find this huge medical complex in its wonderfully rural setting.

I drove across an honest-to-goodness covered bridge to get home every day, through the New England woods all winter long, went hiking and rock-climbing on my days off, but worked in this absolute city of medical services! You could live in that place. I’m told it’s a travesty that I spent a winter in Vermont and didn’t ski, but since I live in Colorado, I’m used to hearing that already, and I promise, I’m not missing a thing.

They actually closed the unit I was contracted for within a few weeks of my arrival, so for five months I rotated through 3 critical care units, taking their step-down overflow patients. I got to learn a little about Intensive Care, got a sense of how a really well-run hospital looks and feels, and took care of more fascinating patients in that winter than I had in my whole (two year) career.

Life is funny; work is crazy. I never know what to say when people ask me about the funniest or craziest thing that has happened to me on a travel assignment. You take a job in Boston to be near your boyfriend but he gets a contract two hours away and you end up alone in a city you hate, on a unit that has roaches, in an apartment that has ants, taking 90 minutes to drive 11 miles to work on game nights because the Red Sox are winning the Series, and you still wouldn’t want to be doing anything else. Though maybe you’d rather be doing it somewhere else…

And then it’s been three months, and you have to decide whether to keep the crazy you have or go looking for new insanity. I always go for the new crazy – why should we be crazy and bored?

When I’m not working, I read constantly. I got a Kindle for Christmas, so I’m reading tons of hundred-year-old books, since they are free to download, but nothing quite takes the place of a real book in your hands. Still, the electronic library takes up a lot less space in my car!

I also write some. I said I’ve traveled “off and on” – some of the off times were the three semesters I took to turn my minor in English into a Bachelor’s degree with an emphasis in creative writing. It worked out perfectly – a 13 week assignment fit neatly into the middle of my summer break and helped pay for the next semester. When I stopped nursing to go to school, I wanted out of the entire medical field, for a while. By the time I graduated, I wanted out of the entire academic field, and it was great to get back to work. Although actually, I had to delay that next contract by 8 weeks after I broke my ankle during finals – yet another time when I appreciated the freedom to take all the time I needed to heal before starting another assignment.

I do a little fencing. Not the kind with the shiny little swords. I’m a terrible klutz (my dad always said they should have named me Grace), so I’m pretty much forbidden to touch sharp objects – knives, axes, chain saws, and I’m pretty sure rapiers fall in that category, but fencing pliers are ok. My aunt is a cowboy, and every summer I take contracts in New Mexico so I can spend my days off in the mountains. Every year from June to October, she lives in an old railroad boxcar, gets her water in buckets from a spring, uses a woodstove, propane lamp and fridge, outhouse, the whole nine yards. And I get to help. My favorite thing about traveling is that I can arrange to be free every May to help put up and repair the fence and every October to help round up the cattle and take down fence. I can’t imagine another job that would give me that kind of freedom.

And I have a young horse that stays with my aunt while I’m away, and I get back to help with her training as often as I can. I’m hoping to have her ready to ride for spring fencing this year.

I’m a fairly self-contained person. Given enough books to read, paper for writing and a phone to keep in touch with my sisters, I am pretty content. I’ve found, though, that too much time alone is bad even for a recluse like me. I always try to take assignments within a four or five hour drive from someone I know. That way, the longer stretches of time off between shifts have a focus and I don’t become a total hermit. Or vampire. Working nights is great, but I need daylight – an afternoon on a horse is a good way to feed your soul.

Thank goodness for cell phones! I burn through time on that phone like crazy. I didn’t have one when I started traveling, and then I got a prepaid thing that I obsessively hoarded minutes on. When I finally got a proper cell phone, I couldn’t believe how much I talked to people. I’ll call one sister on the drive to work and the other on the drive home. The time difference works to my benefit for the early morning calls. I’ve even got my technophobe aunt sending me text messages.

I use e-mail a lot. I like it because it gives me time to think through what I want to say, and also because when I’m feeling chatty at 3am, I can e-mail anyone I want and not worry about if they’re awake or not. Of course, now that everyone but me has a smart phone, I suppose I should be worrying about whether or not they thought to turn off their e-mail alerts before they went to sleep. But I like the idea that I can sit and write late at night and someone I care about will wake up to a note from me. My Grandma, who just turned 87, loves to have an e-mail to read first thing in the morning.

I do not tweet and I’m boycotting Facebook as the soul-eating monster it is. OK, maybe just time-eating. But my middle sister had it right when she described online connectivity as “coming home from work to find 70 people in your kitchen.” Who needs to be that connected? On the other hand, I forgot my phone at home the other day and went through 8 hours of serious withdrawal. So I better not mock the over-connected too loudly! I just prefer strong connections with a few important people rather than tenuous threads tangling around everyone I’ve ever known.

The best thing about travel nursing is…

I love being able to take time off whenever I want. Every thirteen weeks, I get a fresh start. I can take a month off to go play at being a (not very good) cowboy or drive from Colorado to Pennsylvania to visit my parents. I can extend, or not, or finally make good on my threat to get that tree house in Madagascar and never talk to anyone but the monkeys ever again. First I better make sure I can get internet access from that tree house…

I use Travel Nurse Across America as my staffing company.

When I wanted to start traveling, I did some research and, in proper OCD fashion, I made an immense, enormously complex spreadsheet comparing the various travel companies against each other. TNAA was one of the best three for overall scoring, though I can’t remember anymore what my million categories were. I applied to all three, and TNAA had the promptest initial response, but then suddenly stopped communicating with me. The gentleman from one of the other companies was so incredibly excited about everything that I was wondering how recent his last drug screen had been, and the third never got back to me at all. So I contacted TNAA to see why I wasn’t hearing from them and was immediately forwarded to the head of recruiting who explained that my assigned recruiter had started her vacation pretty much the day I applied. I expected him to say I’d have to wait till she got back, or give me some other excuse, but instead he picked up my file himself and got to work. (Thanks, Derek – I wouldn’t trade you for whoever-she-was!) Ever since then, I’ve been treated with courtesy and good humor at all times. Any concerns I have get addressed promptly and I’ve made friends with several of the people I talk to so regularly. I even stopped on my way from Virginia to Colorado once and met some of them. Derek puts up with my random e-mails and skewed sense of humor and makes sure my neuroses don’t run away with me. Also, he’s pretty good with a book recommendation! I’ll admit, I haven’t checked lately to see if TNAA would still be in the top three on my spreadsheet. There’s no way I could measure the value of knowing the people I work with and having them know me. With traveling, I’m always the new kid on the unit, but I know that behind me there’s a whole crew of people who’ve known me for years and trust me to do a good job and put a friendly face out there for them. It’s a reassuring tether during all this flitting about.