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Travel nurses fill critical staff shortages in Wisconsin during pandemic; costs both financial, emotional

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Traveling nurses

GREEN BAY (WKOW) - Veronica O'Kane's pandemic journey as a travel nurse through Wisconsin and other states illustrates the unique specialty's role in allowing hospitals to treat cases of COVID-19 and also its limitations.

"I had always wanted to try travel nursing, " says O'Kane, 27, of Windsor, Ontario.  "I had never actually found the courage to ... follow through on it."
That changed in March at the outset of the pandemic. 

O'Kane says the adventure of taking her critical care, nursing experience to places beyond her position at a Southfield, Michigan hospital and the opportunity to increase her salary appealed to her.  But she also says contributing to the common good during this crisis drove her. 

"I felt like I was part of something so much bigger than me," O'Kane says.

Travel nurses have been in demand as never before.

"We were lucky to have some traveling nurses support us during the COVID-19 surge, especially those with experience in critical care," Spokesperson Leah Huibregtse of Madison's Meriter Hospital says.

Intensive Care Unit (ICU) Team Leader Jason Mattson of Green Bay's Bellin Hospital says incorporating travel nurses as part of the facility's staffing had not been done for over twenty years until 2020. 

Mattson says he and other hospital managers believed the risk of bringing on nurses who might struggle with new systems and protocols was worth it.

"We've never done that before, we're going to do a leap of faith," Mattson says of the attitude on the decision.

Mattson says a degree of desperation also played a role.

"As the COVID numbers started to climb we had to open a second ICU for just the COVID patients and the staff were overwhelmed," Mattson says.

O'Kane was hired as a travel nurse to work at Bellin after already doing hospital stints in Fort Washington, Maryland and Austin, Texas.  O'Kane says in her brief time on the road, she had already experienced the emotional toll of the job. 

"I remember feeling that four weeks in Maryland, I had seen more death than I had in my previous five years.  Seeing death day after day after day was very taxing," she says.  "I've definitely shed a lot of tears."

Mattson says O'Kane and other, hired travel nurses did not need, nor could be offered, the hospital's typical, three months training period for work on the ICU.

"They'd come out of New York City, they'd come out of Miami, out of Phoenix - they'd come out of some really, really tough places," Mattson says.  "So they were battle-tested.  They came in and we did not miss a beat with them."

Mattson says O'Kane's nursing was empathetic and professional.  "Her quality was phenomenal."

Supplementing existing nursing staff with travel nurses having credentials in critical care could be a significant expense for a hospital.

"It's costing hospitals a huge amount and they're competing with each other for these staff," says Rutgers University Associate Professor at the Labor Studies and Employment Relations Center for Work and Health Rebecca Givan.

"It will (be) two to three times more to have a travel nurse compared to a staff nurse," Givan says.  "And the travel nurse (hiring) agency is taking a very large cut."

Givan says the pandemic made it necessary for hospitals to address critical, staffing shortages through this transient labor.  She says there is a role for travel nurses, but says the explosion in their hires has exposed the health care system's need to address staff shortages.

"They're going to have to figure out ... a way to have ... long term staffing levels with stable employees, not travelers who they may or may not be able to recruit," Givan says.

O'Kane is poised for her next travel nurse assignment.  "I'm going to Columbia, South Carolina."

She says her stint from October through the end of January at the Green Bay hospital is a fond memory. 

"I really fell in love with the staff and all the employees at the hospital," O'Kane says.  "I felt very welcomed and thanked."

"In Wisconsin, we were having our meals, every day, every shift, being fed," O'Kane says.  "It really made me like I was home."

Mattson says O'Kane's contributions were immeasurable, especially given the timing of her arrival. 

"That was when we were at our peak, COVID-19 patients," he says.  "And she was the Band-Aid.  I don't know what we'd been without her.  She saved the day."

O'Kane says the career path she chose during a health crisis has changed her professionally and personally. "I've been able to find strength within myself that I never knew I had." 

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Tony Galli

Reporter, WKOW

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