Minnesota traveling nurse returns home after grueling year fighting pandemic

A woman wears a face mask while receiving a shot
Kirstin Wilson getting her vaccine in Napa, Calif. She recently returned to Minnesota to be with family after more than a year of working at various hospitals on the West Coast.
Courtesy of Kirstin Wilson

The current COVID-19 surge has stretched staffing at Minnesota hospitals to the thinnest margins since the start of the pandemic, with ICU capacity hitting an all-time low in recent weeks. Though case counts are lower than last winter's peak, there are now fewer medical personnel working in the state, and burnout is taking its toll.

To cope, many hospitals are turning to traveling nurses — Kirstin Wilson is one such professional. She recently returned to Minnesota to be with family after more than a year of working at various hospitals on the West Coast. She spoke with MPR News guest host Steven John.

The following is a transcript of the interview, edited for clarity. You can hear the full conversation using the audio player above.

Give us an example of one of the more extreme scenarios on the ground during a surge in patients because of COVID-19.

I did have an assignment in Nevada where we were at a hospital that was completely overwhelmed with COVID patients. You may have seen something in news articles at the time of a parking structure opening with 700 cots to care for COVID patients.

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A person lays in a bed within a parking garage.
A patient rests in the COVID-19 alternative care site, built into a parking garage, at Renown Regional Medical Center, December 16, 2020 in Reno, Nev.
Patrick T. Fallon | AFP via Getty Images

I was not working in the garage at the time, but I was working in a unit that was emergently opened as a COVID unit. And it wasn't set up as a hospital unit yet, so it didn't have medications, the proper supplies to care for patients. We didn't have adequate PPE at the time. And where I would normally have had maybe two of these patients for a shift, I was having 10 of them and sometimes also being the lead nurse.

Are you just dropped in at the various hospitals where you are assigned? Or do you get site-specific training and orientation?

That's one of the hardest parts about being a travel nurse, is always working with less information and kind of getting pushed into the deep end sooner. As a nurse, you always have to be good at adapting, and so I think that's something that a lot of travel nurses get really good at.

But with COVID, they needed to get people into the job so quickly that we didn't have the full training that you would normally have — how their equipment works, and how to get ahold of the proper people in an acute emergency situation.

Was the Reno situation when it really hit home to you how serious COVID-19 was?

No, long before I got to Nevada, I'd been working south of [Los Angeles]. That's when LA was having a really tough time. And there, I'd see so many patients come in, I would work with them for sometimes a month doing anything and everything I could to help them get through the day, and then, you know, watch them die. And so I was already pretty emotionally tolled at that time.

And when I was trying to get a break away from COVID and a little respite, this job came up in Nevada, which was supposed to be with cardiac patients. That's the patient population I had been working with in Minnesota, so we were really excited about taking that job. And when we got there, it was our worst situation as far as COVID went for us in the hospital.

The worst of it was that there was really no satisfaction left, in doing our job. There's no gratification for us being able to help a patient anymore because I got to the place where I felt like I couldn't even help someone die comfortably.

How do you think your experience on the road as a traveling nurse has affected you and how does it affect the folks that you leave behind when you move on to another assignment?

I actually just recently reconnected with some of the nurses that I was at that hospital with and all of them have been able to share with me that they're not sure that they're able to work in the hospital any longer.

One said she returned to Tennessee after her assignment and was diagnosed with PTSD. And another was doing what she hoped was one last travel assignment, in hopes of saving enough money to go back to nurse practitioner school and move into holistic medicine, because she didn't think she could do any work in a hospital setting any longer.

I've also personally just been doing a lot of therapy to figure out if I'm able to go back to the hospital, just because of the trauma I've experienced in the past year.

That was going to be my next question. What does your future hold?

Well, being back here in Minnesota and with things in the state that they are in Minnesota, I've been trying to start a per diem job, which is where you can just pick up shifts at the local hospitals.

It is really hard, I think, as a nurse — and a lot of nurses feel this — it's hard to sit here and know that you can help but kind of question whether you really are capable of doing that at this time. So I've gotten myself back to a place where I think I want to try that again. But it's quite possible that I get back to the hospital, then I'm put in similar situations I've been in and, you know, I'm not able to keep doing the job I've been doing.

What would you say to the folks who maybe think that the situation isn't as severe as maybe the news media makes it out to be?

My personal take is that, you know, anytime I'm driving, or I'm mountain biking, or doing anything that I'm a little more at risk — things that I wouldn't usually be super concerned about doing — I do have the thought cross my mind of, “Oh my gosh, I don't want to go to the hospital right now.” If I get hurt, or in a car accident, I'm really scared about the care that I could receive at the hospital.

That's not because everybody working there is not gonna try their best, it's just that there aren't the resources the hospitals need as far as personnel, especially to be able to take care of people in the way they deserve.

That's probably good advice for all of us to be careful. Beyond that, how can we better support nurses and staff at hospitals?

I definitely don't want to discourage anybody from getting out and mountain biking or doing those activities they love because, obviously, we know that keeps us healthy in a lot of ways as well.

A woman rides a bicycle through a wooded path.
Kirstin Wilson mountain biking near Palo Alto, Calif.
Courtesy of Kirstin Wilson

But, obviously, vaccines are big. I'm a big proponent of vaccination. Working in the vaccine clinic was really exciting in the early stages, being able to get so many people vaccinated. But at the end of that time, it was really hard to watch how much of a fall-off we were having with you know, not having the numbers we were expecting.

So I mean, obviously vaccinations and then masks and things that we've found to work, and just really being conscious of what you can do to help out, whether that's being able to work in a hospital, or whether that's just being able to help your community with spread, or that's your family and just encouraging them to make good choices.

You can hear the full conversation using the audio player above.