Economic woes catching up with health care

Travelers’ uprooted prematurely
By Pamela  H.  Sacks

Lewis Martinez took an immediate liking to Massachusetts.

Mr. Martinez, a surgical technologist, arrived in Worcester in late November for a 13-week job at UMass Memorial Medical Center – University Campus. Since then, his wife, Debra Machain, a registered nurse anesthetist in Coos Bay, Ore., has flown east twice to visit him.

Last weekend, the couple explored Cape Cod. At the end of December, they attended a performance of “The Nutcracker,” cheered at a Bruins hockey game and visited a couple of Boston’s big museums.

Mr. Martinez and Ms. Machain are adventurous people who enjoy the outdoors and cultural pursuits. So when Mr. Martinez needed a job a while back, the idea of being a “traveler” seemed appealing, and he joined the ranks of Onward Healthcare, a Connecticut agency that employs a range of professionals and places them in temporary positions at hospitals and medical centers across the country.

Mr. Martinez and Ms. Machain, who married two years ago, have served short stints at hospitals in Hawaii, Alaska and Arizona. They are looking for a place to settle down, and temporary work has proved a useful way to investigate various areas of the country.

“If you don’t like it, you’re not stuck,” Mr. Martinez noted.

Within days after arriving at UMass Memorial, Mr. Martinez thought he’d found just the right place for them. He was about to sign on for another 13 weeks when the recession caught up with him. He was told recently that the hospital would not renew his contract.

“It’s a real disappointment,” Mr. Martinez said. “I like working with the staff. And I like Massachusetts.”

Patricia G. Webb, the chief of human resources at UMass Memorial, said the economy has necessitated cutting costs everywhere possible.

“We are hiring and still using some travelers,” she said. “However, we are being very selective in that process – not in terms of the people but in the areas we feel the staff we have can provide the patient care we want. We are managing it a lot more closely.”

Leigh Ross, an Onward recruiter who works with Mr. Martinez, said she is starting to see the effects of the economic crisis at hospitals everywhere. Ms. Ross places 15 to 20 surgical technologists in temporary jobs, along with registered nurses and other health care professionals. There are now fewer positions available.

“Lewis is so willing and well-versed in what he does,” Ms. Ross said. “It is so important that he remain flexible about where he goes. It’s a difficult time for health care travelers.”

Travelers are a special breed, according to Nancy Kruger, chief nursing officer at UMass Memorial. They are often hired to get a new program up and running quickly or during periods when the hospital is exceptionally busy – in the winter, for instance, when many patients are admitted with respiratory illnesses.

“Anybody who becomes a traveler nurse typically is very focused to the care of the patient,” Ms. Kruger said. “Many times they are extremely well prepared. Their breadth of experience is different from nurses who stay in one place for many years.

“They also are people who enjoy change and the challenge,” she added. “Unusual events are things they enjoy, and they don’t get flustered. Generally, they’re personable and smart.”

Mr. Martinez, who is soft-spoken and thoughtful, is a licensed practical nurse with additional training in surgical technology. His work involves setting up the sterile surgical instruments and drugs used during surgery and assisting the surgeon before and during the procedure. At UMass Memorial, he has worked on general, spinal and orthopedic cases.

A traveler’s willingness to adjust to change reaps financial reward; his or her pay is 10 percent to 15 percent higher than that of a staff counterpart, Ms. Ross said. A contract surgical technologist earns from $20 to $26 per hour. Onward Healthcare covers the cost of housing, travel and health insurance.

Mr. Martinez, 44, came to nursing via a roundabout route. He grew up in Los Angeles. At 17, he enlisted in the Navy and became a submarine sonar operator. After leaving the service, he moved to Hawaii and set up shop as a commercial diver.

“It was a dream job,” he said.

Eight years later, Mr. Martinez followed a girlfriend to Minneapolis. He decided to pursue nursing in part because it seemed jobs were widely available. From the moment he observed surgery, he knew the specialty was for him.

“It was the significance of what was being done – the caliber of people and the synergy of people working together toward a common goal,” Mr. Martinez said. “It reminded me of what I did on a submarine.”

When Mr. Martinez split with his girlfriend, he went to Southern California and then to Mercy Medical Center Mount Shasta in Northern California. There, he met his wife. After the series of jobs in Alaska, Hawaii and Arizona, Ms. Machain landed a yearlong contract at Bay Area Hospital in Coos Bay, but there was no job for Mr. Martinez. He took a short-term position in Washington State. Then he signed with Onward, and Ms. Ross placed him in Worcester.

“Sometimes we find the perfect fit,” Ms. Ross said. “When I was able to pair Lewis with UMass, he was thrilled. He was immediately welcomed in. It was so rewarding.”

Mr. Martinez and Ms. Machain had planned to make Massachusetts home at the end of her contract in May. Now Ms. Ross is looking for another good fit for Mr. Martinez, and Ms. Machain is reconsidering what she will do.

“If we could both be in the same place and find jobs, that would be ideal,” Ms. Machain said with a tinge of sadness in her voice.