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From Fatigues to Scrubs: Meet Laretta Smith, Military Operating Room Specialist and Travel Nurse

No stranger to new locales, surgical nurse Laretta Smith received her medical training in the United States Army. She trained at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and Fort Sam Houston, Texas, before being stationed at Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, D.C., where she honed her skills in cardiovascular, ENT, and general surgery.

When she came off active duty, she moved home to South Carolina. But the thrill of new destinations and exploring the yet-unknown still called to her. Travel nursing proved to be just the adventure she was looking for.

A leap of faith

Smith met a travel nurse who had just come back from a year of travel assignments. Smith was intrigued about the opportunity, and the two talked more about what travel nursing entails.

“My first thought was, ‘that can’t be real!’ I couldn’t believe it was really an option,” Smith says. “I loved the idea of a change of scenery. I looked into it, put in my resume and had a tremendous response. I got my first assignment in Texas, put in my two-week notice and the rest was history. It was a leap of faith.”

That leap was more than nine years ago. Since that time, Smith and her family have lived all over the country — traveling from Houston, Texas, to Harrisonburg, Virginia, and San Luis Obispo, California, to Paoli, Pennsylvania.

“I had never heard of Paoli; I had never even been to Pennsylvania,” says Smith. “But I absolutely fell in love with it. What started out as a 13-week contract turned into multiple contracts and nine months.”

Many of Smith’s assignments have been met with a similar outcome — she frequently extends contracts, often spending a year or more in roles and with colleagues she enjoys.

A chance to develop her skills

Smith brought a wealth of surgical experience to her role as a travel nurse. But she relished the opportunity to develop her skills even further and branch out into new therapeutic areas.

“As I started traveling, I gained experience on total joints and orthopedics. I was open to that opportunity when it presented itself through travel nursing. Orthopedics is now my primary specialty, and it has been awesome,” Smith shares. “I have encountered so many things and gained so much experience, and the wonderful thing is, you get to take all that knowledge with you to your future assignments.”

Different ways of doing the same thing

In addition to developing her own professional skills, Smith enjoys the exposure to different hospitals and unique processes.

“Travel nursing is such a great experience if you want to see how different hospitals function; you get to learn so many different ways of doing the same thing,” says Smith. “It is an amazing way to gain experience and build a great resume.”

Meeting people, making connections

For Smith, one of the biggest benefits of travel nursing is meeting people and making connections all over the country.

“I love meeting new people and forging new friendships. I have made friends all over the place and still keep in touch with many of them,” Smith shares. “I enjoy not being involved in any of the politics. I like to do my job, do my best, and meet great people along the way.”

A family affair

The experience of travel nursing is made richer for Smith by traveling with her family — four children (ages 11, 10, 3.5 and 2) and her mother.

“I have such great family support,” says Smith. “I get to be there with them for the day-to-day. And because I have my family close, I don’t have to worry about needing to travel to them should something happen while I’m away.”

Smith involves her children in researching and deciding on new assignments. When her recruiter lets her know about a potential new assignment, the family spends time learning about the area, fun things to do and see, and even looking at pictures of what would be their new school in order to get excited about new opportunities.

Importantly, Smith speaks openly and candidly with her recruiter to be sure her family’s needs and priorities are considered when exploring a new opportunity. Excellent schools and safe neighborhoods are chief among her criteria, so she is willing to commute in order to situate her family in a place where she knows they will thrive.

“Take the time to learn about potential assignments,” Smith advises. “If you have a family, your recruiter can often make accommodations to make it the right fit for you. Let them know up front everything you can and can’t do.”

Smith works with her recruiter and utilizes RNnetwork resources to plan and prepare in advance, making sure all arrangements are made for housing, school, and child care. She also does her best to plan for unexpected needs, such as emergency care.

Once she and her family arrive, Smith seeks out recommendations from local colleagues on the best things to see and do, and finds activities and events to engage her family in their new community.

Smith highly recommends travel nursing to individuals who may be considering the experience. She cites the opportunity to acquire new skills, learn a variety of approaches, visit new areas, and meet new people as hallmarks of her experience.

She also offers this practical advice to anyone worried about the unknown:

“The great thing is, you always have an end date. You can do anything for 13 weeks!”

About the author

Allison Riley

Allison Riley is a public relations professional with more than 10 years experience in healthcare and corporate communications. She lives in New York City with her better half and two wonderful daughters. She and her girls are currently contending for world's slowest recorded stair climb to a fifth-floor apartment, and she enjoys writing so she can just finish her sentence already.

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