Why I Became a Travel Nurse and How COVID Changed Everything: Season 2, Episode 2 of ‘Let’s Go Together’

Travel nurse Deanna Wallace shares how COVID-19 changed her life as a travel nurse. 

Podcast Guest, Deanna Wallace
Photo: Austin Howard

Travel + Leisure's first-ever podcast, Let's Go Together, is back and we're excited to keep rolling out our second season of the show, which was nominated last year for an iHeartRadio Podcast Award. Last week we introduced you to Annise Parker, the former mayor of Houston, Texas, and the first openly gay mayor of a major U.S. city. In the first episode, Mayor Parker explained how Houston became one of the most diverse cities in the U.S. and why it should be on every traveler's must-visit list.

This week, on the second episode of season 2, host and adventurer Kellee Edwards takes a look at the world of travel nursing, a job where registered nurses are stationed throughout the country over various contracts based on a variety of factors, including hospital demand and personal preference. For many travel nurses, 2020 and the coronavirus pandemic completely changed everything. From moving from hotspot to hotspot to dealing with lack of PPE, they saw it all.

To share what it's really like being a travel nurse, Deanna Wallace, an ICU nurse for over nine years, joins Edwards. Based in Atlanta and working as a travel nurse for the past five years, Wallace has spent time all over the country, including New York City and Los Angeles during the height of the pandemic. For Wallace, an avid traveler, travel nursing was a great way to explore the country while getting paid to do it. "You pack your bags and you head out and it's always an adventure wherever you go," she told Edwards.

Over the course of the episode, Wallace shares the highs and lows of working as a traveling nurse, from exploring new cities and making new friends to dealing with the physical distance from family and difficulties of constantly learning new hospital systems with new doctors, coworkers, and structures. And of course, how, when the world found itself in the middle of a global pandemic, Wallace walked straight into the eye of the storm. "I just set out with a goal of 'I'm going to go here [and] I'm going to do the best job that I can do to save who I can," she said.

But of course, the best way to hear Wallace's experience is to listen to episode 2 of Let's Go Together on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Player.FM, and everywhere podcasts are available.


Kellee: Hi, my name is Kellee Edwards...and this is Let's Go Together, a podcast from Travel + Leisure about the ways travel connects us, and what happens when you don't let anything stop you from seeing the world. It's been over a year since the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted our daily lives. For many of us, this has meant sheltering and working in the relative safety of our homes. However, for the brave medical workers fighting the pandemic in our hospitals, this past year has been a much more harrowing experience, dealing with life or death situations everyday while having to live in isolation from friends and family. On this episode we talk to Deanna (dean-ah) Wallace, an Intensive Care Unit travel nurse who has travelled the nation, filling in crucial ICU posts on the front lines of the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.

Deanna [00:33:13] Hi, I'm Deanna Wallace, I'm from Natchez, Mississippi, and I now live in Atlanta, Georgia. I've been an ICU nurse for nine years, and I've been a travel nurse for five years.

Kellee [00:01:06] So what is a travel nurse and how do they different from traditional nurses?

Deanna [00:01:13] So a travel nurse is a nurse that will travel outside of her home in order to find work or to do a nursing job. So with that hospitals will pay you extra to come to their hospital. So say, if I'm living in Atlanta and a hospital in Los Angeles needs a nurse, they need an IC nurse, they'll pay usually double for you to come out there to work their hospital. So you pack your bags and you head out and it's always an adventure wherever you go because it's usually the city. You're not familiar with the chance to explore that city.

[00:01:49] And if it can be fun, 13 week assignments at a time or it could be longer. Sometimes it's six months, but usually 13 weeks. And it's really the same kind of work. You're just going into a new environment. We do the same job as the nurses there.

[00:02:05] The only difference is we're not at home, and they're at home with their family, can go home at night to their home or their house. And here it is. We're very far away from home.

Kellee [00:02:17] Right. One thing that I have heard about travel nurses, something that you pointed out earlier, is that you guys are compensated very well. And I see now with more information, that's because you're not at home and you have additional expenses and things like that that you have to incur while being on the road.

[00:02:37] So I appreciate the context in that because I was just looking like, oh, they're all here ballin' right now, you know, double the pay to go to a whole other city. It doesn't so bad to me.

[00:02:48].Um It takes on a whole different type of context once you add a pandemic into it, which is something that, you know, we'll definitely get into. Why did you decide to become a travel nurse?

Deanna [00:03:09] Well I actually decided to become a travel nurse, I had just got out of a bad relationship, and so I just wanted a fresh start. I wanted a fresh start, a new city with a new location, new friends, and to just start over. So I was in Atlanta and I just got out of relationship. so I took a job in Los Angeles, beautiful city. I really enjoyed the people and exploring the food, having the beach really close. I could go to the beach one day and it was just like, wow, all these different cuisines I never tried. So it was just very exciting. And still be able to do what I love. As far as far as going into the hospital and taking care of patients is the same diagnoses. But the only thing that is different is the people that you're dealing with that is different is a different environment.

Kellee [00:03:55] Absolutely. Speaking of environments, you said how you quickly adapted to the Los Angeles life with the beaches and the great cuisines and the restaurants and the people. But how challenging is it to keep adjusting to new work environments?

Deanna [00:04:14] It is very difficult. You're going to the environment where the doctors are not familiar with you. You don't know where everything is as far as your equipment and your supplies, the people that you're working with, they don't know you.

[00:04:26] So it takes time for them to even trust you as a nurse that you know what you're doing, although you have a point of going in as a nurse to show that I am competent, I know what I'm doing, and I can take care of patients just as well as you are. So you have to go in and, how do I say this, your best foot forward and show that you are knowledgeable and able to do the job just as well as anybody else.

Kellee [00:04:55] Absolutely, because I've definitely heard of the challenges , as a travel nurse, of going to new environments, with even the staff, wondering if, you have the qualifications to be there and a lot of times it sounds like at times being a rift between people who are on staff and people who are travel nurses per se as well.

Deanna [00:05:23] I agree, you go into that environment and it's kind of like, oh, you're the travel nurse, but you're not a staff nurse, they kind of I don't want to say isolate you, but they, do have their core staff and their core friends and sometimes they don't talk to you sometimes they stay with their friends and they laugh and joke. They don't laugh and joke with you. They'll look and see what you're doing. They'll make sure you're doing your job but they're not going to socialize and make friends with you because it's like almost like you're an outsider. And so I just go into my job and just go in and do a good job. And what they see that I'm doing a good job and I'm competent, they start to give me a chance. But by the time they start to give me a chance, my time is almost up.

[00:06:00] So it's like you are so closed off to giving me a chance until you saw that, oh, she's not so bad. You know, you give me a chance and then we can be friends that we could have been friends from the very beginning.

Kellee [00:06:12] Exactly. I always tell people the one thing I will say about going into new environments and traveling the world is that you have the opportunity to meet new people and also when people are coming to where you're at. And I just really wish that people would be more open. And that aspect. Has traveling always been a part of your life?

Deanna [00:06:36] Traveling has always been a part of my life, but it's the more part of my life in my 30s, I talked to my sister.

[00:06:44] Her name is Eman Girly and she's a chef. And so she basically married and she has a little girl.

[00:06:52] And she talked to me one day and she said, you know, if I had it all to do over again, I would travel the world. I would go to every country I want to go to. I would go on these girls trip. I would live it up. She's like, if I was your age and I had to had to do it all over again, I would live my best life right now.

[00:07:10] She would like, That's what you should be doing. And it was almost like a switch went off, like I should be doing that. Like, why am I not doing that? I'm at a point where I'm not married. I don't have any kids know I can really travel the world if I chose to. And I made that choice to do that. And with my travel assignments with nursing, I make sure to go to countries I've never been to, travel with friends and have the time of my life, and have those memories and pictures to look back on. And I totally have loved every moment of it.

Kellee [00:07:42] That's amazing to hear, I mean, you can tell that even just from looking at your Instagram, how much you love the travel life. Back to your career as a travel nurse, what does the typical travel nurse assignment look like?

Deanna [00:08:02] so you'll talk to a recruiter and recruiter will ask you what city you would like to go to, say it's Los Angeles, as we've been talking about that, say, Los Angeles, you'll ask me what kind of rate I'm looking for. I will give them a range and he will talk to the facility and the facility will shoot back some rates to him and we'll talk about that. And then if we all agree, we're all in accord then we'll go forward with the interview and interview with a manager, they'll ask me with my experience in ICU, how long have I been a nurse?

[00:08:38] And some managers will actually go to different questions about you, like specific questions about something that a nurse would know in ICU.

[00:08:48] So say the patient is septic. What would the vital signs look like? What symptoms would you see that patient? And so they know that if you're an ICU nurse, you know what's going to come first, what's going to happen and what orders are going to come. And if you're not, I guess, a skilled or been a nurse a long time, maybe you wouldn't know all of that.

[00:09:10] And so they try to make sure they're getting the best of the best with those questions.

Kellee [00:09:15] And you said the assignments are normally around 13 weeks.

Deanna [00:09:20] 13 weeks, so about three months apiece, if you really like an assignment or the facility really likes you, they'll ask you to extend. And so for me, I actually extended in L.A. for like a whole year, like every 13 weeks is like you want to say, I'm like, yes, I do want to stay so

[00:09:37] I love the city. I like yeah. I want to stay here, there' no way I want to go back to Atlanta right now. So I stayed all year.

[00:09:44] And so it was such an amazing experience as far as making friends and going to the beach and doing yoga and Venice Beach was beautiful. And so you just fell in love with L.A., but then you just still miss your family.

Kellee [00:09:59] Right. Right. I can definitely see that. That's one thing about traveling. We love to go.

[00:10:04] And then at some point it kind of hits you that you have people behind and some sort of capacity that miss and love you. And you think about that, you're like, oh, I, I wish I could see them too.

[00:10:17] And then it leaves again, you're like, I'll holler at them when I get back.

Deanna [00:10:22] So true like I promise I'm coming like we're going to have like all kinds of dinners and hugs and kisses.

[00:10:29] I promise I will eventually come home. Right.

Kellee [00:10:33] Absolutely. What's your typical process when arriving in a new city?

Deanna [00:10:42] When I first arrived in the city, I try to make sure I unpack the essentials, like whatever uniforms I might need, equipment I might need for my job, I make sure everything is out that I need for my job.

[00:10:55] The day before, I always go and see how far this facility because you think you know how far something is, but you really don't. So you want to see where is parking for employees.

[00:11:06] And that way you're not late going into the job thinking, hey, this facility is 15 minutes away, but with traffic, it might be 30. And so you want to, like, kind of pace yourself because you don't want to be running into a new unit as the new nurse and then you're late and so you are already starting off on the back foot.

Kellee [00:11:24] Let me just say right now that just hearing that you're incredibly responsible, just to have that foresight, because I'm going to be honest. When I worked in corporate, I never was plotting on wondering where the parking lot is because I would need that extra five to 10 minutes. and you're absolutely right, you do you do. So if you're listening to that, whether you're a travel nurse or you work in any type of job, please scout things arriving on the new job. This is amazing information.

Deanna [00:12:01] It really paid off, cuz I've had experiences where I didn't do that and then rushing into the facility or running at that point because I'm late. And so then they look at you like, oh, here comes the travel nurse. She's late.

[00:12:22] I look at her like making all this money and you can't be on time. So you just hate to start off that way.

Kellee [00:12:28] Oh, yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. What would you say your favorite assignment has been so far?

Deanna [00:12:37] For me, I love San Francisco, and I love Houston and of course, L.A., those are my top three places that I've been.

[00:12:48] For me, the most friendly location was actually Woodland Hills in Los Angeles. The staff was nice the manager was nice, the patients were nice and i was like, wow, I wish, you know, all the units I ever go to would be like this because it was seems like everybody felt like a brother. And if I needed help, there was never a problem with that. And so and the manager treated me like I was I like her daughter, it just made me feel at home. And so it became a home away from home. And if I could go and work at any facility outside of Atlanta, that's where I would start.

Kellee [00:13:23] A sense of community is just so important in so many different aspects of life. So it's great to hear that, you know, you found that especially when sometimes things can be clicky. What are some of your most memorable moments in your travels, especially in regards to being work related or destination related?

Deanna [00:13:58] My favorite memories would definitely be in New York. We were in New York for the pandemic and one of my friends, he actually was in charge of our unit. And so when I initially got there, he was like, oh, come over to my facility.

[00:14:15] And so he was able to get me on his unit, which is awesome. And he also got his other friends on the unit as well. So everybody that worked on his unit, he already knew. And so it was like a family friendly environment. We would order lunch and eat together and we would laugh and joke on the bus, going home.

[00:14:37] And so I guess it made being away from family and during the stressful environment, much easier. It was a little things that really made dealing with COVID bearable.

Kellee [00:14:49] Absolutely, I definitely could understand that. I wish I could work with some of my friends in my field, you know, I've had a couple of opportunities here and there, but don't let me and a few of my buddies get to host anything in the travel space or, you know, get on this podcast together is going to be something else.

[00:15:07] You sometimes post on Tik Tok about the challenges of being a black woman in nursing. Can you share a little bit on what that experience is like and if so, how it also affects your travels?

Deanna [00:15:20] Oh, no problem. So for me, it's difficult because only 10 percent of nurses are actually African-American.

[00:15:30] And so it's great when you're in Atlanta and you're surrounded by other black nurses. But when you go to a city like Los Angeles or San Francisco and you're the only minority nurse on the whole unit, it can be very unwelcoming at times. And sometimes it can be just fine. Everybody accepts you as you are, but sometimes you can just feel the tension in the room, Like they think that you're not competent because you are a black nurse and so it's always having to prove that I am competent. I do know what I'm talking about. I know my drip. I know how to contact the doctor when I need to. And I take care of my patient.

[00:16:08] And so it's been instances where I'm like taking care of patients and it's like I'm just getting my day started maybe an hour into my shift we have somebody come in and say, oh, you haven't done your charting, you haven't charted X, Y, Z. I haven't sat down yet. I Haven't even sat down to that part of my job and you're judging me and so I've had instances like that and I've had instances where I'll get the hardest load or the hardest patient on the unit, meaning that the patient is super sick, they're probably on dialysis, they're probably on ventilators, extremely complicated cases.

[00:16:48] And you'll see other nurses with the easiest cases surrounding you. And you are running and you need help. And because you're a traveler, you ask for help they act like they're too busy to help you.

[00:17:00] And so that's the part of travel nursing, that I don't like and I actually plan on doing a blog just to express that, because it's difficult being already being away from home and then for other people at your job to give you a hard time because they don't think that you're a good nurse makes doing my job harder than it needs to be.

Kellee: Deanna's job became much harder over the past year thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. When we come back, we speak with Deanna about her experiences fighting on the front lines against the coronavirus. I'm Kellee Edwards, and this is Let's Go Together from Travel + Leisure. My guest today is ICU travel nurse, Deanna Wallace. We're currently in the middle of quite possibly the biggest public health crises in our lifetime with COVID 19. The ICU, where Deanna works, is where the most life-threatening cases are sent. I asked her about working as an ICU nurse during the pandemic and how it has affected her work as a travel nurse.

Deanna [00:18:38] I started working the pandemic in New York in March and I worked at pandemic from March until June. And so from there I was in New York. Everything was fine. We thought things were going to get better, and it did it actually did get better for New York. But then it started to get bad in other places, especially Texas. So we went to Texas. And I can say all around all the people are just much more sick with this disease. And it's very hard. It was very hard in the beginning. What are we going to do? You're trying these medications and there's nothing that really is proven to work. And so we're just trying other antiviral medicines because we don't have any. And people are dying very quickly, even with you doing everything you're supposed to. And it's still not enough. People are dying like flies, and you're like usually as a nurse, when you do your best job, it's enough. You can change a life. You can get somebody home to their family. You can get them out of ICU. And with COVID its the exact opposite. You are doing your best. You are taking care of your best. You're updating the doctor on any changes with the patient. You are getting other medications. You're doing everything you can with a respiratory therapist, make sure they get better and they're not. And their family is calling every day checking on them. Are they getting better? What are you guys doing? You're updating them and it's just more changes with the patient. The patient is still, just getting worse.

Kellee [00:20:09] How many COVID assignments have you worked so far and, you know, how has that been for you personally?

Deanna [00:20:16] This is my third COVID assignment, and they are decreasing the number of nurses that they need right now.

[00:20:26] So you just don't know how long these assessments is going to last, because even though it's been decreasing here in Texas, they're recruiting now for New York again, it's like they slowly open New York back up. And here it is, we're thinking, OK, Texas is taken care of, we're OK. You would think that, you know, we're finally going to get a break and is the exact opposite. It's like you know you think you're OK and then is spreading somewhere else. So it's been its difficult on us. And, I know it has to be difficult on everyone else as well because you're tired of quarantine.

Kellee [00:21:04] Absolutely. What are your thoughts on the pandemic response as someone who has been on the front lines?

[00:21:33] I'm very happy with the response to the vaccines. I'm very excited that people have decided that they will trust the vaccines from Pfizer and also from Moderna. A lot of people were very against it at first, especially in the black community. For me, it was just a matter of I'm in an environment that is full of germs and COVID all the time. So I want to make sure I'm protecting my health the best that I can. So for me, it was a no brainer. The science behind it let me know that was the best option for me. And so for me, I want more people to do their research and do what's best for them going forward. I don't want you to just go off on social media and say, hey, I saw this on social media and so I'm not going to get the vaccine. I just want for you to make an educated decision about what you're going to do.

Kellee [00:22:22] Absolutely. Absolutely. What would you say the most challenging thing about working in a pandemic has been for you?

[00:22:31] The most challenging part is, I think managing the drips that we are managing to keep people alive, it's a lot more than usual for ICU, so usually in the ICU they will give you one patient that's stable and one patient is unstable. And in this situation, everybody's unstable. So you're like in one room, but you're constantly worried about your other patient because they're unstable as well.

[00:22:57] So you're running from room to room trying to make sure that these medications that you have hanging, keep them alive, don't run out, because if they run out, then that's something that would be on your heart forever. That somebody might pass away because you forgot one bag of medicine. So it's very very, very tedious, so. I know that any ICU nurse listening to this. They know that we're going to get extra bags hanging, not as many as we would like, but at least one extra bag behind that medication to make sure that this time to switch back running dry, we can go back bag and make sure that no medications run out. Everybody is safe. Everybody has indications that they need. And so you do that for about six days a week. And that's right now they're only allowing us one day off a week. So when you're doing it, it just becomes exhausting.

Kellee [00:23:49] Absolutely. I mean, you're leading me into my next question for you, you know, but what keeps you going? How do you keep yourself from burning out?

Deanna [00:24:00] For me, I think that I just set out with a goal of I'm going to go here, I'm going to do the best job that I can do to save who I can. And so if I look at it that way, I'm doing the best that I can. And if I see someone come off the ventilator and go home to the family they hold my hand and say thank you. Like, thank you for everything that you did. I remember when you came into my room and you told me you were going to be OK. You told me what medications you were doing. I could hear you. And we think no one, you know, they can't hear you. They actually sometimes can. And so it's motivating in itself to know that, you know, I can possibly save a life and get you to go home. And you hear about stories from the patient's family. And so with that, you get to know who they are. Like, my mom is a chef, the best chef. She's the kind of person that makes the whole family laugh. And it's like we need her back home. Can you please send the heart of our family back home to us.

Deanna [00:24:56] . While we try to keep that in mind that, you know, its someone's loved one, they want to see them again and you want to make sure that you're doing everything you can to make sure they do get home to their family.

Kellee [00:25:09] Wow, that's just, you know, listening to you is just very heart warming, just the way you move and, you know, the way you take pride in what you do and how you conduct yourself. I would trust my family member with someone like you.

[00:25:29] And I really you know, I really, really hope that, you know, that there are a lot of Deanna's out there that that have the same sort of care and patience, you know what I mean? You know, because I've definitely had some experiences with doctors where I'm like, now I'm not let's see that one again or, you know, nurses that were rough and even taking these covid tests, you know, I have to take you know, I still travel. It's a part of what I do for a living. And I'm always taking these a nasal PCR test. And some of these people are so rough. And I'm like, yo, like, be a little gentle. So it's just really nice to hear someone who doesn't sound like they rush and, you know, takes that extra gentle care because it's necessary. You know, when you are in a situation when you're in a hospital, especially during the pandemic, I mean, you're isolated from all of your family. So it's very important to at least be able to have someone in the facility that you feel like genuinely cares. So, you know, thank you for being like that. It's really beautiful to hear.

[00:26:52] What's something that you like to say to the public, especially to black and brown communities about the pandemic.

Deanna [00:27:03] I want to encourage them to get the vaccine. I don't want for the black and brown community communities to be left out of the vaccine because they're afraid of the the side effects. I think that research has shown what the side effects are and I know people have gotten it, that nobody has died like nobody is croaking over or becoming a zombie after getting this vaccine. Please do your research. Like, see, it's OK for, you to do your research, I feel like you'll be more comfortable with getting the vaccine and making sure that your family members are getting vaccinated as well.

[00:27:40] And some communities it's harder to find, it is hard to find a site that, you know, getting vaccines because they're going in order of the elderly first well... health care workers first and then the elderly, and then it's open to the public, but it's hard to find appointment times where you can go in and get the vaccine. So I just want to say be diligent, make sure that, you know, you look every day or even, call like if the websites are saying that appointments are... Well, call and see do you still have any you know, cancellations on today? Can I come in? Can you call me if someone cancels? Because I really want the vaccine?

[00:28:17] It would make a difference in getting more people vaccinated. I was talking to someone earlier and were saying how they were trying to get vaccinated in their area and there was nothing available. But they did like they went to another area code somewhere outside the city and suburbs. They did for that area code and they were able to find an appointment time. And so that just goes to show, you know, you were trying to do it in the inner city and it was nothing available. But you were on the outskirts of the city. You were able to do an appointment. So definitely look under every rock and make sure that you're using all of your resources in order to get vaccinated.

Kellee [00:29:03] Yes, absolutely If some of our listeners are interested in becoming a travel nurse, what advice would you give them?

Deanna [00:30:51] I would definitely say if you're interested in becoming a travel nurse, go to a city maybe where you know someone already, maybe a family member or friend, so that way on your off days you can be around someone that's familiar to you somewhere that you've always wanted to go for, that you want to go that don't just go somewhere where the job is available because there are nursing jobs available in all cities across the United States. So go somewhere that you want to be. And it makes a difference. Instead of going somewhere that, you know is a small town, you don't know anybody. There's nothing to do. And then on your off days, you really do nothing and then you have nowhere to go. And so that's that's they will put you in a hole and it's not you don't want to be depressed and sad.

[00:31:38] So you might go somewhere where you can enjoy the culture and have fun with family and friends on your off days. And so it makes a difference on whether or not you enjoy your location and where you are and work that you do.

Kellee: (script) That's all for this episode of Let's Go Together, a podcast by Travel + Leisure. I'm your host, Kellee Edwards. You can follow our guest Deanna Wallace on Instagram at [hey nurse michelle] and check out her Tik Tok at [the sunshine nurse] Thanks to our production team at Pod People: Rachael King, Matt Sav, Danielle Roth, Lene Bech Sillisen, and Marvin Yueh . This show was recorded in Los Angeles, edited in New York City, and can be found wherever you get your podcasts. You can find out more at travel and leisure dot com slash podcast. You can find Travel + Leisure IG @travelandleisure, on Twitter @travelleisure, on TikTik @travelandleisuremag, and you can find me at @kelleesetgo.

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