Around one in five healthcare workers left medicine during the pandemic — nearly half a million since February 2020, according to federal data.
But even pre-pandemic, some healthcare providers were scouting for other career options. MedPage Today spoke with three nurses who, in an unusual twist, chose to chart their own courses as entrepreneurs, managers, and truck drivers in the transportation industry.
From Trauma to Trucks
Melanie Patterson, BSN, MSN, said she “fell in love with nursing” in high school, after her father’s girlfriend, a hospital executive, invited her to shadow nurses in a neonatal intensive care unit.
Patterson eventually went on to become a certified nursing assistant (CNA), earned a bachelor’s degree in nursing, and had a nearly 6-year career as an emergency department (ED) trauma nurse.
In 2019, she completed a master’s degree in science and all of the coursework to become a nurse practitioner (NP). But when Patterson researched the NP market, she discovered a “saturated” field with a lower pay-scale than she’d anticipated.
After 4 years of schooling and $30,000 worth of loans, Patterson said she realized she’d only earn about $15,000 more as an NP in ED trauma than she had in her previous ED position, not to mention working the same inflexible schedule — she’d still be missing Christmas morning with her children.
“I said, ‘No, no, no. There has to be another way,'” Patterson told MedPage Today.
At that time, Patterson’s husband was a real estate investor and she managed the “back office” for his business (she studied business management and administration in college before switching to nursing). A family member was already working in the trucking and transportation field, and encouraged the couple to take a chance and do the same.
Patterson said she weighed the pros and cons of sticking with nursing rather than changing gears to a totally different field. A pro: As a nurse, she loved being able to give back to the community, and be a role model, particularly for the young girls and “troubled kids” she identified with, as someone who struggled as a teen to stay on track academically.
A con: Realizing that at the end of a 12-hour nursing shift, which morphed into 14 hours, she hadn’t even had time to use the bathroom.
Patterson and her husband decided to move ahead with their transport dream: She wrote up a business plan. Her husband and a business partner got their commercial driver’s licenses (CDLs), with the former serving as driver and fleet manager. Patterson, as founder and CEO of Integrity Transit of Chicago, would oversee the onboarding process and all of the accounts.
Patterson said that many of the skills that made her a good nurse — following protocols, being a team player — turned out to be invaluable in the transport industry. “We have the determination. We have the hustle. We have the obedience … [and] we’re very, very structured,” she said. “On time for me is 15 minutes early.”
Another pro to her new line of work: Patterson can often say to herself “‘I’m going to go ahead and put this on my to-do list for tomorrow,'” which was not an option in the ED.
Asked whether she misses her old job, Patterson replied that nursing “was a part of me and so naturally, yes, of course, I miss working in the [ED]…But will I return [as a nurse]? Absolutely not.”
She noted that her former nursing classmates and colleagues are “burnt out, and for those who have been in the [healthcare] industry for quite some time…they’re like, ‘I’m out. I’m done. Yes, you can pay me $75 an hour. I still don’t want it.'”
Meanwhile, she’s able to oversee “an empire” and still be around for her children.
“I’m not saying that entrepreneurship is easy by any means, but I’m saying it’s damn worth it,” Patterson said.
Frontline Nurse to Local Trucker
Twenty-five years ago, Pandora Dumas, BSN, MSN, DNP, was in the military and interested in earning money for nursing school. She chose a military occupational specialty and became a fuel handler. She later obtained a CDL, and between her earnings and the money she received through the G.I. Bill, she was able attend nursing school.
Dumas went on to obtain multiple degrees, including a master’s and a doctorate of nursing practice. She and her husband, a truck driver, also raised a family.
During the pandemic, the North Carolina-based couple bought a truck and formed a local distance company. Since then, Dumas said she has reduced her hours in nursing by about half and thinks she will eventually leave nursing for the transport industry, primarily for financial reasons.
Dumas the nurse was on the job when the first COVID-19 patient came to her hospital. During the pandemic, her hours have gotten longer, but her pay, at the time of the MedPage Today interview, had not changed.
While new nurses are receiving massive sign-on bonuses — as much as $16,000, according to Dumas — “I can make about 30% or 40% more money a day [in the transport industry] … than I could working as a nurse,” she said.
And she wonders about healthcare providers who worked “in the trenches” for decades: “Where’s their retention bonus?” she asked.
Dumas noted that she developed an eye condition as a result of having to wear personal protective equipment for long hours, although she was recently approved for a powered air-purifying respirator to manage the issue.
She listed several benefits to a career in transport: It only takes 4 weeks to earn a CDL and “There’s not too many careers that you’re going to move laterally and make the same amount of money… without going back to school for an extended among of time,” she said.
Other wins are more flexible hours; a calmer, less-stressful environment; and as a local truck driver, she’s able to be home at the end of each day.
A Different Kind of Navigation
Nyja Harrison, BSN, is a full-time oncology nurse navigator at UM Capital Regional Health in Maryland. She also takes additional shifts as a clinical research nurse for the NIH.
Harrison’s husband has been in the trucking industry for 8 years. She said the move into trucking had been a goal of theirs for years, and they “finally took the leap to actually purchase a truck.”
The couple have two children, and another on they way. She said she sees a chance to be her own boss and have a more flexible schedule in the trucking industry, especially when an emergency related to childcare crops up — she can manage it instead of asking friends and family for help, she noted.
While Harrison said she’s not quite ready to leave the nursing field completely, she does plan to cut back to part-time hours. She noted that helping people deal with a cancer diagnosis is something she’d miss; showing empathy, assisting in treatment management; and connecting patients to support groups during an emotional time is still rewarding.
“I love nursing so I’ll probably still do it as needed,” she said, adding that, ideally, she’d like to take nursing shifts on her own terms.
Harrison pointed out that the logistics of trucking require similar communication and problem-solving skills as helping patients navigate their healthcare. Delays in treatment can be traumatic for patients; delays in transport are unfortunate, but “at the end of the day, it’s merchandise, it’s not somebody’s health,” she said.
Shannon Firth has been reporting on health policy as MedPage Today’s Washington correspondent since 2014. She is also a member of the site’s Enterprise & Investigative Reporting team. Follow