Updated January 29, 2022 - 2:57 pm
After completing an eight-week contract at a Las Vegas hospital, traveling emergency room nurse Lauren Meadows said she’d return to Sin City for fun but not to work.
“There were just days where you felt like you were a chicken running with your head cut off — and people’s lives are in your hands,” said Meadows, 27, who completed her assignment at an undisclosed hospital Jan. 13.
On some days she was taking care of seven or eight patients in an ER holding area for those awaiting a bed, instead of the more typical four or five patients.
She didn’t always have time to immediately attend to a patient’s every need and to develop the rapport that makes nursing rewarding.
“I just made sure they stayed alive and gave as good care as I could,” she said in an interview.
Traveling nurses such as Meadows, who cross the country for temporary assignments, are in high demand as the result of a nationwide nursing shortage made worse by the pandemic. The job offers flexibility and good pay, which can be three or more times what staff nurses typically earn.
“I can pick and choose where I’m working and the length of the contract,” Meadows said. “And I can take time off in between contracts. That’s great. And also the pay is really incomparable to staff nursing.”
Meadows, who has worked as an ER nurse for five years, declined to disclose exactly how much she earned in Las Vegas but said her pay fell within the range of $3,000 to $5,000 a week. Certain types of traveling nurses can earn much more. Aya Healthcare has posted positions for traveling ICU nurses that pay up to $9,486 a week. Meadows was employed in Las Vegas by Aureus Medical Group.
Crisis in staffing
Representatives of Las Vegas Valley hospitals have said they are working to bring in more travelers, but that has proven difficult because of the high demand across the country.
The need in Clark County for more nurses has never been more acute. The Nevada Hospital Association declared a crisis in hospital staffing this month, due to front-line health care workers sidelined with COVID-19 and an increase in hospitalizations.
“Traveling nurses are offsetting the voids left by nurses who are out sick or quarantining, or who have left a facility,” association representative Amy Shogren said in an email. “There is a need for more nurses in general, not just travelers. We have been working with health care stakeholders and the Governor’s office on ways to help alleviate the staffing concerns and help bolster the nursing pipeline in the future.”
So far, however, there’s been little relief. Three members of the state’s volunteer Battle Born Medical Corps are currently assisting in hospitals across Nevada, said Shannon Litz, a representative of the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services.
About 350 apprentice nurses are employed in Nevada facilities, she said.
‘The ER exploded’
Meadows, who is based in Nashville, Tennessee, and her husband wanted to take an RV road trip to the Southwest. She had never been to Las Vegas. And so she took an assignment here, and the couple and their two dogs were on their way.
Meadows said in one of her popular TikTok videos that she almost canceled her contract after the first day.
“What made me most uncomfortable was the patient flow and not being able to assess or watch my patients and observe them as closely as I would like,” she said in an interview.
Meadows said she took care of patients as fast as she could and didn’t feel like she was harming them.
“If it got to a point where I felt like my patient’s safety was at risk, then that’s when I would talk to my charge nurse and ask for help,” she said.
Then, after the New Year’s holiday, “it was kind of like the ER exploded,” she said. “There were patients everywhere. And the whole hospital was full.”
The ER became a bottleneck, holding patients until beds were ready on patient floors. There wasn’t room in the ER for the influx of patients, which meant that some admitted patients had to sit in chairs in the lobby while they were attached to IVs.
Meadows said she had never seen this practice before but believes that it is widespread locally. A reporter saw it in effect this past week at Summerlin Hospital and Medical Center, a circumstance that a hospital representative said was due to the increased number of ER patients over the past month.
“When appropriate, we sometimes begin treatment (i.e. the IVs) and have patients return to the ER lobby rather than delay their care,” Gretchen Papez, a representative of Valley Health System hospitals, which includes Summerlin Hospital, said in an email.
“We know it’s not ideal but we are more concerned about initiating medical care so they can begin to feel better. Like hundreds of other hospitals across the US, there are sometimes long waits for our patients to have an inpatient bed.”
Papez said the Valley Health System is supporting its nursing units with “travel nurse contracts, our nurse apprentice programs, asking other hospital staff to assist with tasks like delivering meal trays and watching our nurse leaders voluntarily taking on patient care assignments, along with their managerial responsibilities.”
As the numbers of patients continued to increase, Meadows began to dread going to work.
“I was giving everything, and it still was going to be a hard day,” she said. “And it was nonstop. So it was very difficult. It was exhausting. … I was in a dark place.”
“The staff that I worked with, everyone was trying their best and tried to keep their heads up and be positive, hoping that it would get better each day.”
She said the situation was understandably frustrating for patients. One of the reasons she makes TikTok videos about her work experiences — one of her Las Vegas videos attracted 1.5 million views — is to show the public that nurses are real people.
“Be patient if you are coming to the hospitals,” she said. “Nurses are doing their best. Doctors are doing their best. It’s just unprecedented times.”
A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the number of patients Lauren Meadows cared for. It also misidentified her Las Vegas employer.