Travel Nurse Emily Cheng Looks Back on a “Challenging” Year

The travel nursing industry may never be the same after 2020. The coronavirus pandemic has intensified the national nursing shortage to the point that facilities have started competing for top-tier talent. Today, travel nurses are going to some of the most critical hotspots in the country, but there still aren’t enough providers to go around.

Emily “Em” Cheng has been working as a travel nurse over the last two and a half years, with 2020 being the most stressful for her. We recently had a chance to catch up with Cheng as she gets ready to finish out the year in Hawaii as part of a temporary work assignment. 

SCRUBS MAG: How has 2020 treated you?

EMILY CHENG: It’s been challenging, to say the least. That’s the word I’ve been hearing from a lot of healthcare providers. But there’s been plenty of silver linings as well. I’m grateful for my health and my family’s health. 

SM: Where did you start out the year? 

EC: I started out working in Seattle, and we kind of got hit first. The facility where I worked did a good job complying with the latest safety guidelines, but the rules and regulations were always changing. It kind of reminded me of when I was just starting out as a nurse, and all these people were dying, and everything felt so overwhelming.

SM: Did you have enough PPE at the time?

EC: No, there were definitely moments when we had to make do with what we had. I remember the hospital telling us to toss our protective gear into bins, so they could be disinfected and reused, which is not standard procedure. They also asked us to reuse our disposable face masks. If we needed a new mask, we could request a new one, but you had to sign it out.

SM: Did you feel like the facility was putting your life at risk?

EC: I didn’t feel like they were doing anything wrong. I understand that when PPE is limited, you have to regulate it, ration it. I always felt like my team supported me when we were short on PPE. I never experienced any pushback when I asked to wear another mask or protective layer.

SM: Where are you located right now?

EC: I’m on assignment in Hawaii, which is set to end in mid-January. Cases have been pretty low for a while, but they’re starting to tick up again. After that, I’d love to work at a facility in California, considering everything that’s going on there. 

SM: How has travel nursing changed since the start of the pandemic?

EC: So, I really love travel nursing, but it’s definitely not the same as it used to be. I like to travel and see new places, so it seemed like a great fit. We were short on nurses before the pandemic, which has only made it worse. 

It’s gone from job listings asking for three 12-hour shifts a week to four or five shifts a week. Some jobs want you to work for 10 or 21 days straight, which isn’t good for nurses or the patients. It feels like they just work their nurses until they burn out, but then they have to bring in a new group, which can be counterproductive.

SM: We’ve heard reports of hospitals offering nurses as much as $8,000 a week. Has this been true in your experience?

EC: Maybe not that much, but I see ads and job postings everywhere I go. I’m constantly getting messages from recruiters and lead generators. You can’t really go on social without seeing them, either. I’ve been happy to help out where I can, but I’m kind of wary of taking jobs in hotspots. It’s not that I don’t want to help, but I’ve heard that these jobs often change on a dime. I’d hate to move across the country just to find out a job has been canceled. 

SM: Has the job started to affect your health?

EC: Yes, I’ve definitely felt the health effects firsthand, stress, anxiety. I try to spend as much time outdoors as I can to relax. I usually just soak up all the beauty of Hawaii, snorkeling, scuba diving, and hiking.

A Promising New Venture

After over two years of moving around, Cheng is working on a new project: a mobile app that would make things easier for travel nurses. It’s called MedVenture, which is set to launch in 2021. She designed the program with her friend and colleague Ryan Codgill, another nurse stationed in Hawaii. The app would allow travel nurses to share their experiences online, so other providers can make informed decisions in terms of where they live and work.

Travel nurses, or “travelers” as they’re known in the community, will be able to leave reviews of their apartments, local restaurants, and even the facilities where they work. 

The program will feature five key sections. The first is about helping nurses meet other like-minded providers in the area. She says traveling to a new city can be lonely, and this feature will help nurses make friends. The next section will feature a list of local or sponsored events aimed directly at travel nurses. It will include everything from conferences and learning seminars to local meet-and-greets.

The app will also include a discussion board on where to eat, drink, and go out in the area. Obviously, going out isn’t always possible for the time being, but once the pandemic starts to decline, travel nurses will once again be able to enjoy more of the perks of traveling.

Nurses can also read reviews of different assignments, facilities, and companies, so they can find the right fit for their skills. Users will list their name, title, and wards they work in to help others find the information they need.

We’re thankful for Cheng and everything she’s done for her patients and colleagues. Be sure to follow her on Instagram for more information about her adventures as a travel nurse and her new start-up.

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