Alicia Carroll: Travel Nurse Thrill Seeker

Cascade Mountains

Carroll at Blanca Lake in the Cascade Mountains, one of her “favorite hikes in Washington.”

Alicia Carroll ’07 travels light. When she moved to South Carolina in February for a position in the neurotrauma ICU at Greenville Memorial Hospital, she fit everything into her Subaru Crosstrek and rooftop carrier. As a travel nurse, Carroll works under 13-week contracts at hospitals around the country. She works with a recruiter and chooses where she wants to go, usually based on climate or natural surroundings. South Carolina is her fourth assignment and fifth state in three years. So far, she has worked in Colorado, Arizona, Oregon, and Seattle.

“There’s such a big nursing shortage right now nationwide,” she says. “Extra hands are always needed.”

According to TotalMed recruiter Josh Cutchins, hospitals hire travel nurses like Carroll for various reasons. The staffing agency sends “travelers” to hospitals that need extra hands during winter months; Arizona is a prime example, he says. The population there swells when snowbirds escape winter in their resident states, and then thins when spring arrives.

“It saves the hospitals a lot of money to hire travelers to fill the gaps for six months, instead of keeping a large staff year-round,” he says.

Hospitals also need extra help to cover staffing gaps while training new hires, or while transitioning to a new charting system. “Sometimes,” Cutchins says,
“they like to try a travel nurse to see if they are a good fit before offering the person a staff position.”

Both Carroll and Cutchins say travel nursing is not for everyone. “The beginning of each contract is the most stressful time,” says Carroll. “You don’t know anyone and orientation is short. You have to learn your way around a new hospital and a new
charting system quickly.”

Thailand Elephant Park

Carroll volunteering at an elephant nature park in Thailand.

“It takes a certain personality to be the new person all the time; you have to be adaptable and know your specialty,” says Cutchins. “It also helps if you can get along with people easily and be somewhat independent; I’ve had people try it but quit because they didn’t feel like they fit in with the regular staff.”

Fortunately, Carroll has the winning combination of an adventurous spirit and the medical expertise needed to adapt quickly to new hospitals. She worked as a volunteer EMT while attending MC. As a student nurse she worked in the Multitrauma Critical Care Unit for R. Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center. After graduating Towson University, she became an RN and worked in the medical ICU at the University of Maryland Medical Center.

“Patients in Baltimore were high-acuity,” Carroll says, referring to seriously ill patients needing staff dedicated solely to their care. “As a result, we saw a high turnover in staff. I became a charge nurse; I trained six new nurses and served on several committees. Of all the places I’ve worked, it was by far the most demanding.”

Carroll’s Maryland nursing license allows her to work in 30 states, thanks to a nursing compact among states. If she chooses a state outside the compact, she can attain a license on an annual basis. Leaving her permanent position in Baltimore, she gave up some benefits, like sick leave and vacation time, and she buys her own health insurance when she is not on contract. But by and large the benefits outweigh the losses.

Travel nurses earn 40 to 60 percent more than staff nurses. The standard median wage for staff nurses (national estimates) is $68,450 or $32.91 per hour, per the US Department of Labor. Their compensation includes a tax-free stipend for housing, meals, and incidentals, which can average $1,200 to $1,800 per week. During her contracts, Carroll usually rents a furnished apartment or in-law suite. When needed, she buys furniture and household items at thrift stores, and then resells or donates them when she leaves.

“I do know several travel nurses who live in vans and RVs while on the road,” says Carroll. “I dream of one day buying a Sprinter van and turning it into a mini RV to use on the road.”

While staying in one place and working a typical week of three 12-hour days has its advantages, Carroll wanted more time to pursue her passion: globe trekking. Taking contracts for limited times allows her more time and flexibility for extended trips overseas. In the last two-and-a-half years, she has traveled to Thailand, Iceland, Ireland, New Zealand, Belize, and Guatemala. She is planning her next two trips: an Antarctic cruise and a backpack trip to Patagonia, Chile, and Argentina.

Mount Rainier

Carroll hiking in Mt. Rainier National Park, Washington.

“Alicia is making the most of out every minute of her life,” says Cutchins. “And she is doing it while building an impressive resume. Internal recruiters love travel nurses; they understand that by working in different hospitals all the time they learn new ways to do things and are conversant with lots of methods and systems.”

Carroll understands the value of her experiences, too, especially for future employment opportunities.

“The nursing shortage is getting worse with time, not better,” says Carroll. “With baby boomer nurses retiring and the population of elderly growing, nursing instructors retiring, and over-65 life expectations rising, nurses like me have good opportunities all over the country. Whenever I stop traveling, I know I will still have good opportunities in my career.”

Alicia Carroll completed an AA in general studies as a Montgomery Scholar. She earned a bachelor’s in nursing (BSN) at Towson University in 2010.

—Diane Bosser
Photographs courtesy Alicia Carroll

Benefits of Travel Nursing

  • Higher pay—40% to 60% higher than staff nursing (includes stipend for housing, meals, and incidentals)
  • Travel the country
  • Avoid hospital politics
  • Resume builder—hospital staffing recruiters view travel nurses positively for their experience with different systems and methods

Drawbacks

  • Unfamiliar faces and places—being new every 3 months can be challenging
  • Possible licensing problems
  • Feeling left out among regular staff

Provided by Josh Cutchins, senior recruiter, TotalMed, Southern Pines, NC

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