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RNs On The Open Road: Travel Nurse Leah Bernard

The world needs nurses. In recent years, their areas of expertise have been in such high demand that hospitals worldwide have offered temporary positions to RNs, and the people who take them are referred to simply as “travel nurses.”

Leah Bernard, an emergency room nurse and Columbia native, became enticed by the idea of becoming a traveling nurse. Feeling secure in both her personal and financial life, she decided to take the leap. After a short stint in Wisconsin, Leah found herself on the beaches (and hospitals) of Guam.

“There are agencies that specifically go out and find [hospitals] that are looking for temporary contract nurses,” Leah explains. “They give [you] what options they have available — it’s usually specific to what area of expertise you have. My area of expertise is in the emergency room, so I travel as an emergency room registered nurse.”

“I didn’t even know where Guam was at first,” Leah laughs. But after arriving, she fell in love with the island, saying, “I was able to meet the locals and meet some new friends. There’s quite a few travel nurses there because the island is very small and they just don’t have the local population to staff their hospitals. I was originally only supposed to stay for eight weeks, but I ended up extending for a total of 16.”

Traveling nurses don’t receive the same benefits as staff nurses, so they are personally responsible for providing their own health insurance and retirement plans. Additionally, traveling nurses have to pay for their own lodgings — Leah actually stayed with a local family in Guam, residing in their basement studio apartment during her time on the island. Luckily, other than the employment benefits, Leah says that traveling nurses aren’t treated any differently than staff nurses.

“I’ve always been treated wonderfully,” she says. “In Guam, the people are so kind, so sweet. The patients never complain, they’re just thankful that there’s someone to help take care of them. There’s a difference in culture — the culture of nursing compared to Guam — it’s very relaxed, and it’s not always like that.”

Though a career as a traveling nurse can be lucrative, Leah says that it does have its drawbacks.

“The worst thing I’ve dealt with is being away from family and friends, and trying to establish long-term relationships,” Leah explains. “I’ve met some amazing people on my contracts, but it’s a different kind of friendship. You have an intense friendship [in the beginning] but then everybody has to go their own way. I could have stayed longer [in Guam] very easily, but I was missing my family. All my family is in Columbia, so I was ready to get back to [them].”

Not everyone is cut out to be a travel nurse, either. In addition to the homesickness, Leah explains that traveling nurses need to be ready for anything at a moment’s notice.

“There’s a lot of conversations about how much experience a travel nurse needs before they should be travelers, because you don’t get an actual orientation. You have a day or two and then you’re on your own, and you’re expected to do what you need to do, when you need to do it,” Leah says. She notes that she had roughly five years of experience before becoming a travel nurse, which she says felt appropriate. 

Most importantly, Leah is grateful for the opportunities she has had and will continue to receive as a travel nurse.

“It’s not all about the financial [aspects],” she says. “The best thing about it is being able to travel, to see new things, and experience something new every time. It’s an adventure.” 

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