IN MANY WAYS, Lorraine Sprich is living the good life in Baltimore. She has an apartment at the chic Tindeco Wharf in Canton, provided free by her employer. She works only three or four days a week and can afford to spend her long weekends exploring the Inner Harbor and other Baltimore attractions, dining at the best restaurants in town and making an occasional trip to Washington.
And about once a year, she takes an all-expenses-paid winter vacation to the Club Med of her choice, also subsidized by her employer.
Such is the life of a traveling nurse -- a registered nurse who contracts through a third-party company to work stints of three to six months at various hospitals around the country.
Sprich works eight- and 12-hour overnight shifts at University Hospital, where she treats abdominal surgery patients and vascular disease patients. In a few weeks, she'll leave Baltimore for another city, find another home and adjust to another hospital.
"Not many people can pick up and leave," says Sprich. "But I love it. I'm not nearly as burned out as I was, and the benefits are great."
Across the country, there are an estimated 7,000 traveling nurses who temporarily fill nursing vacancies created by everything from summer vacations to the opening of a new hospital wing.
The payback for "travelers" are similar among the dozens o agencies that handle nurses on the move: a salary that ranges from $10 to $30 an hour; rent-free, furnished housing; free moving expenses; and the opportunity to negotiate where they want to work, when they want to work and for how long.
Most agencies also reward nurses with bonus points for time served, much in the way the frequent flyer system works for airline travelers. The points can be redeemed in vacations, gifts and/or money.
Traveling is not new to nursing, but it is proving to be increasingly popular today in attracting people to an industry that's been experiencing a severe shortage since 1986.
Traveling seems to appeal most to nurses in their 20s, not long out of school and not yet ready to settle down. But it also can benefit the seasoned professional looking to forestall burnout, says Bruce Male, founder and president of Malden, Mass.-based TravCorps, one of the largest travel nurse agencies in the country.
"Traveling gives them a new perspective," he says. "It's an opportunity to work in a different environment culturally and professionally."
Nurses who don't stay in one place too long don't get embroiled in the "hospital politics" often required in getting things done, he says. "They just want to be nurses and not get involved in issues that take energy from them."
For Martha Cheetham, a nurse at Johns Hopkins, traveling wa just the change she needed. At 33, she had been living and
nursing in North Carolina nine years when she decided to pull up stakes.
"I wasn't really dissatisfied with anything, I just wanted to try something different in another area," says the Toronto native who has been a traveling nurse two years now. She was assigned to Stanford University Hospital in Palo Alto, Calif., for five months and then moved to University of California San Francisco Medical Center for another five months. She has been Hopkins a little over a year, having recently extended her contract and moved into Gynecological Oncology.
"Probably the biggest advantage to traveling is experiencing medicine in different institutions, because no two hospitals are the same," says Cheetham. "But it's also a great way to see the country and meet people. And you can save a lot of money this way if you need to."
Travel nurses are sometimes hired for high-tech specialties and critical care units, but more often they can be found as floor nurses in general surgery and medical areas, the less "glitzy" areas of nursing. They are also the areas with the heaviest patient load.
Being temporary staff, travelers don't accrue paid sick leave and most have to buy health insurance themselves. Travelers also tend to draw seemingly unpopular shifts.
RF Cathy Aurori, a travel nurse at Sinai Hospital, recently went from
working the 3 p.m.-11 p.m. shift to working 12-hour nights on a medical-surgical floor. The hours may seem dreadful to some, but to Aurori, who is 26, the three- and four-day weekends come in handy for visiting out-of-town friends and making jaunts to the ocean.
Indeed agencies can make the prospect of travel very enticing. They offer bonuses, for example, for working in Florida in the summer and for accepting three consecutive assignments without taking more than three weeks off. Sprich says some of her contracts have even included free parking, transportation to and from work and a health club membership.
Sprich, who is 25, has been traveling two years, ever since she bumped into a traveling nurse at the hospital where she was on staff in her native Grand Rapids, Mich.
"It sounded too good to be true," she says. She contacted an agency, said "send me someplace warm for the winter" and has been traveling ever since. She attributes a lot of her success to having an "assignment coordinator" who appreciates her priorities -- "good housing, good pay and a fun city."
Coordinators do the mixing and matching of hospitals and people and must keep track of everything from whether a nurse's wants a non-smoking roommate to her preferred shift and nursing capacity.
Agencies also help nurses with licensing paperwork. Because the exam taken by registered nurse candidates is standardized throughout the country, getting licensed in each new state is basically a formality.
Aurori, of Sinai, has worked in hospitals in North Carolina, Texas and Florida. She had been a staff nurse in her native Ontario, Canada, more than three years when she heard about the concept of traveling.
"I said, 'Gee, there's gotta be a catch somewhere.' But I love it. You just have to be the type person who's very flexible; you have to be willing to adjust to new ways of doing things."
Aurori lives in a Randallstown apartment complex, where her agency rents a block of apartments. She pays an additional $150 a month out of pocket to have a place to her self.
She hopes to reassign in Baltimore for an additional 13 weeks when her first stint at Sinai runs out. After that she'll take a break to go home for Christmas. "Then maybe I'll go to New Orleans for the winter."
It's a great life for now, but that could change.
"It's hard work," says Aurori. "It's not a job you want to be doing when you're 50. You're always on your feet. You go home and literally ache sometimes. That's true of nursing everywhere."