Our Spotlight series highlights a new nurse from the SHIFT audience each month. We ask the same set of questions each time, but of course, we get all kinds of answers. The individual stories and surprise twists in these conversations make us laugh, cry and feel proud. Over time, we hope to discover both what makes each of you unique and understand what ties all of us together as nurses.
Julie G. started her career in dentistry and has a degree in healthcare administration, but she ultimately received a BSN degree from UT Health in Houston and landed in bedside nursing — the ICU, to be exact. A Texas native, for many years Julie couldn’t picture herself ever leaving Houston, let alone living in another state. But when COVID-19 hit, that’s exactly what she did. Julie packed her bags last spring and hasn’t been home since. When we spoke, she was about to start a shift at a D.C.-based hospital. We talked about why she chose this path, how surprisingly isolating it’s been and which of the myths about travel nursing are just that — myths. Julie’s seen a lot of ugly stuff this past year, but her smile was contagious, nonetheless. We actually smiled and laughed quite a bit. Read on and see for yourself.
Why did you decide to go into nursing?
Honestly, I was always kind of puzzled about what I wanted to do when I grew up. A lot of nurses start out pre-med, and I was one of those. But when I first went to school, I also worked full-time to pay for it, and financially it just wound up feeling like med school was not in the cards for me. I always knew I would do something where I would take care of other people though. Because that’s what I like to do, every day: take care of people and love them as human beings and respect them.
Before I made my way to nursing, I was in dentistry as an office manager. Actually, this is the real story of how I got into nursing [leans into camera and whispers] — I got fired from my job! To me it was just insane, it’s still insane to think about actually, but I just didn’t fit into that group I was working for. At the time I felt stupid, and it was a low point. But they happened to fire me 15 days before the deadline for UT’s nursing school. I had always thought about going to nursing school and figured I might as well do it. During those 15 days, I took the entrance exam twice and got everything in, and I was accepted. I actually was wait-listed so I only found out I got in two weeks before the semester started. But UT was the nursing school I really wanted to go to, so that was that.
Here I am today, and it all came from being fired and feeling stupid and low and like I had nothing to offer — I look at where I am today and that changed my life, and I’m actually incredibly grateful that my boss at the time finished that part of my career so that I could start this one.
Tell us about a time when it was really hard to be a nurse or a time that made you question being a nurse.
Even though I’ve worked as an ICU nurse all through COVID, it never made me question why I was a nurse. It was apparent every single day, even if it was hard, why I needed to be where I was. The times where it was really hard were the days that I felt alone, especially as a travel nurse. You know, you don’t have that camaraderie right off the bat with other staff. Nurses don’t usually like travel nurses, so often we get “interesting” assignments — I’ll leave it at that. There were some days when I would just feel extremely overwhelmed and even if I asked for help, I’d get pushback. So, I would just truly feel alone.
Even before COVID there were moments like this — it happens so much in nursing when you don’t feel like you’re supported. I remember one particular shift that did make me question if I wanted to be a nurse. I was given three very critical patients and … well, one human being cannot manage three very critical people. I went to the charge nurse, and I told her that I felt that way, that it was inappropriate. And she said that was everyone’s assignment. It was a really bad moment where I honestly was just hoping that all my patients made it until the next morning. Later I went to HR, and I told them about it. At the time, I didn’t know if it was lack of experience. But looking back, especially as a more experienced nurse, I know that wasn’t it — nobody should be expected to do that.
Later when I was working in the ICU, some travel nurses actually came in to help, and I was so grateful to those travel nurses. I was like, “Thank God, there are more people here.” And that’s what I like to think I do too now. I go in and help nurses who are feeling the same way that I felt when my unit was understaffed. I love being able to help not only patients, the most vulnerable patients, but to help my fellow nurses.
Who inspires you?
I’m inspired by different people in different aspects of my life. Nursing-wise, my preceptor for critical care really inspired me to be a great nurse and to continue learning, to continue my education. I can still hear his voice in my head sometimes when I’m doing something he taught me to do, especially when it’s some trick I show another nurse and she’s like, “Oh my gosh, that’s so cool! Where did you learn that?”
And honestly, just being around my fellow nurses in general inspires me, whether I know them or not. It’s a really incredible feeling to all be working toward the same goal and when you feel like someone has your back — I am really inspired by that feeling.
As far as who has inspired me to pick myself back up after those hard moments in life, my parents have always been a true source of strength for me. I can always be honest with them about how I’m feeling, and knowing that I have their unconditional love makes me feel like I can’t fail.
Describe your SHIFT BFF. Why are they your best friend on the job?
I always find my kindred spirits pretty easily actually. I seem very serious at work — I’m not a serous person at all [laughs] — but at work I do seem serious. I seem very focused. I connect with people who can see through that and hear the little sarcastic comments that I make and just really touch on my sarcasm and enjoy telling stories. I love finding humor in things no one else finds funny, and that’s what you have to do! As a nurse you have to laugh at things that other people might find tragic. Those people that I can laugh with, those are the people I connect with.
Back when I was in the cardiac ICU, I did have a work wife. I liked her the moment she sat down. It’s just this vibe you feel with some people. I thought, “You’re sarcastic. I like the things that come out of your mouth!” We still talk on a regular basis. Even now, I go visit her. I can always ask her what I feel are dumb questions, or if I made a mistake when we were working together, she would just straight up say, “Julie!” and call me out. I liked that, because I knew that it was coming from a place of love. Having those true friends at work is so important.
Tell us something about your specialty in nursing that other nurses may not know.
I actually started at a hospital in Dallas, working in their urgent care/emergency department. I highly recommend that new grads start out in that kind of department. After that, I wanted to challenge myself, so I went into critical care. I had a really wonderful preceptor and met some truly inspiring nurses in the cardiac ICU I worked in.
But about a year in I was starting to wonder if this was what I wanted to do. I have a bachelor’s in healthcare administration and worked seven years in dentistry before nursing, and I really missed the business aspect of healthcare — creating goals around quality improvement and things like that.
Then COVID hit. I was in a relationship that wasn’t healthy, I knew I wanted a change, and so I just took the leap and I said, “I’m going to Philadelphia, they need nurses there.” Two weeks later, that’s where I was, in a hospital where all the ICUs had been turned into COVID units. A year later, here I am, still doing COVID contracts. I went to Philadelphia, then I went to Miami, and now I’m here in Washington, D.C.. If you had told me a year ago that I’d be doing this, I never would have believed it.
Travel nursing isn’t anything like I thought it would be, though. You go to a brand-new hospital, go through a few days of orientation (which is usually just about their policies), shadow a staff nurse on the unit for one shift, and then you’re on your own! You have to figure out everything about the unit — the software, how to contact peoples’ doctors, how to contact respiratory staff, all of that. I’m fortunate in that I’m pretty adaptable and I catch onto things quickly. I actually enjoy that aspect of travel nursing.
Something I didn’t expect was how temporary things feel. It’s very hard to create any kind of social life that has a sense of permanence. It feels like everybody you meet, everything you do, everywhere you go, is temporary. That’s tough. I actually don’t even like telling people I’m a travel nurse, because I feel like when they hear that they dismiss me: “Oh, well, she’ll be leaving.” And it’s true, the nature of this job is that I’ll always leave. So that’s a really tough aspect of travel nursing in general.
Another thing that I wasn’t used to was talking to family members, because I was always on night shift. When COVID first started, I was talking to so many family members on the phone, and it was incredibly tough to verbalize what their loved one was going through. And to explain what they looked like, because I knew that the family remembered them being normal. It was really tough, especially when I knew they were going to die. I think a lot about the awful things I see on a day-to-day basis at work, and I forget that most people don’t see those things.
Describe your community’s health. What is your hope for your community’s health in the future?
When I worked in Dallas, we had lots of people coming into the emergency room with conditions that often would be more appropriately treated somewhere else. So, I think the best thing we can do for that community’s health — really for any community — is to provide education. I saw a serious lack of healthcare education in Dallas, and I don’t necessarily know how to fix it, but I hate to see people getting these crazy high bills for having a headache treated in an ER when they might be able to go somewhere else or even use an over-the-counter medicine. I know that some people just don’t have other options, and that’s a whole other problem — that their only option for getting rid of something like a headache is to go to the emergency room.
How can nurses be better to each other?
There are so many things! Even coming onto the shift with a smile on your face — or at least in your eyes, now that we’re all wearing masks — can make a difference. I mean, it’s just this energy you create. You can choose to come in with a bad attitude or good attitude, and coming in with a good attitude not only makes the shift better for yourself but for everybody around you. That goes for shift changes too. If giving report at the end of my shift goes well, I go home feeling good. If the nurse taking over has negative energy, I worry. We always hear monitors, even in our sleep. Another thing I think is important is to be real with each other, to be able to talk about tough stuff and to remember that we’re human.
Something I do at my current hospital is get everyone together to do squats every hour. We’re busy, so we miss a lot of hours, but it’s so fun. At first, I was doing them alone, and then my friend said, “Hey, I want to do those with you.” And then a lot of other nurses heard about it, and they came over and did them with us. It’s just a nice moment when we’re all together doing something that’s healthy for ourselves, that makes us feel good.
What is your vision for the future of nursing?
There is such incredible potential for nurses — oh my gosh, it’s incredible! Things that couldn’t happen without telecommunication. I think it forces people into this way of communicating that we really already should have been using.
I actually love to fantasize about running a hospital that is totally driven by nurses. Because ultimately, we take care of the patient, and when a nurse is happy, their patient is happy. It’s as simple as that. There are so many different ways that we can improve the way we communicate, with hospitals and with each other. There is so much potential, and I love thinking about it. I really do, because of my administrative background and my passion for quality improvement and improving processes. I really love seeing organizational change.
Describe one of your best shifts ever.
If I get a light shift, I like to do extra little things for my patients, things I usually don’t get to do when I’m busy. I had this one patient whom I was told during report was kind of needy and grumpy. But I never judge someone off what I hear in report. I just went in there and started talking to her and realized that was what she needed. The more I talked to her, the less she used her call light! She told me that she was really embarrassed about her feet. And I had learned this trick from another nurse where you use shampoo caps and put them on a patient’s feet and let them soak to remove dead skin and callouses. So, I did that for this patient, and I gave her a little foot rub, and the manager of the ICU came up to me later and said she saw me doing that and that the patient couldn’t stop talking about it. I ran into the manager a few days later, and the woman was still talking about it. Knowing that I made an impression on her, that I made her day, was great.
What we think is taking care of people isn’t necessarily what they feel is being taken care of. So, when I’m truly able to take care of somebody the way I was that day — that is a great shift.