I’m a Canadian ER nurse who took a job in the U.S. so my family can survive

Between travel-nursing contracts and leaving the country, my colleagues are doing whatever we can to find stability. I don’t blame any of us for looking for work elsewhere. 

For Lindsay Clarke, travel nursing was a means to an end (photograph courtesy of Clarke)

I’ve always wanted to be a nurse, but it was a long road to get here. In 2004, I started working for the Canadian Pacific Railway—on the “gangs,” as they call them. I built and fixed railroad tracks between Port Coquitlam, B.C. and Swift Current, Saskatchewan. I did that for six years, and met my future husband, Ryan, on the job. I told him that nursing was my real dream career. I was in and out of the hospital a lot as a kid, and I still remembered all the wonderful nurses who took care of me. Ryan told me he’d heard good things about the nursing school at Memorial University in Newfoundland, where he was from. In 2008, I applied and got in.

In 2015, two years after I graduated, Ryan and I moved to Calgary in search of more sprinkler-fitting jobs for him. I took RN jobs all over the province, and in many different practice areas: long-term care, dialysis, acute care, and emergency rooms. ERs were my favourite because I got to interact with patients of all ages. At one point, I managed a roster of travel nurses, ones who are employed by private companies and contracted out to medical facilities that are experiencing staff shortages. (They’re sometimes called “agency” or “locum” staff.) I was privy to their hourly rate, which was nearly double my wage—and sometimes more.

READ: State of Emergency: Inside Canada’s ER Crisis

Last spring, after almost a decade in the profession, I started to realize that my full-time nursing job wasn’t enough to sustain our family’s lifestyle and pay off my $55,000 student-loan debt. At that point, I was making $52 an hour working in a hospital in Edmonton. Remembering how lucrative travel nursing could be, I quit my job and, for the last year, I’ve worked with Athabasca Workforce Solutions, a travel-nursing company based in Fort McMurray. I’m licensed to practise in Alberta, Newfoundland, Saskatchewan and even Texas, working on contracts that last an average of six weeks.

RELATED: I began my ER nursing career in Ontario. Burnout and low pay led me to leave for the U.S.

When I arrive on-site, the hospital staff usually greet me with an exasperated “thank you so much for coming,” especially in rural communities. By now, everyone knows about the conditions in Canadian ERs: recently, two people died while awaiting care in ERs in Nova Scotia and in Alberta. Last October, wait times in Red Deer reached 19 hours. I’ve worked with travel nurses from all over Canada, and I’ve spoken with many that weren’t allowed to take breaks. I can remember one particular job where I had 13 high-acuity (or very sick) patients to myself; that’s triple the normal patient-to-nurse ratio. But if we stick to hospitals in our home communities, there’s no one to take care of those people.

MORE: An impossible job: What it’s like to work in a pediatric ICU

To deal with the staff shortages, some provincial health authorities are now paying huge sums to hire travel nurses, rather than renegotiating contracts with local nursing unions to offer them more money. Last year, Nova Scotia’s health authority spent $16 million on travel nurses in just nine months. Since 2020, Alberta Health Services has spent $10 million on travel nurses, and walked back an attempt to slash general RN wages by three per cent in 2021. We worked so hard throughout COVID, so that was a slap in the face. Many Canadian nurses, including me, have come to the same realization: there’s nothing keeping us here. Why would I stay? 

For me, travel nursing was a means to an end: to get caught up on our family’s debts. Gabriel, our eight-year-old son, has autism and ADHD, and I’ve often had to leave him for weeks at a time—most recently, for a contract in Peace River, which is five hours north of where my family lives. My husband is basically a single dad when I’m not there.
I would have preferred to work full-time at a hospital near my home, where I’d be paid appropriately, but that wasn’t possible. 

READ: Thousands of patients. No help. Meet the lone family doctor of Verona, Ontario.

Recently, I took a job even further afield—a permanent one, in the United States. As of June, I’ll be working full-time as a registered nurse in a private hospital in South Carolina. This time, my husband and son will be moving with me. I found the position while searching the hiring platform Indeed for travel-nursing jobs in the States. I got in touch with an American recruiter who was specifically advertising for Canadian nurses, and they made me an offer I couldn’t refuse: a yearly base salary of US$100,000, plus a sign-on bonus of $20,000. I’ll also receive a shift differential, which means that, on weekend nights, I will earn an extra eight dollars per hour. Most importantly, the company is paying for three years’ worth of housing. We can’t afford to own a place in Canada, let alone afford a decent rental. The price of heating my Alberta home tripled last month. Soon, we’ll have our green cards and be American citizens with a home of our own. 

I’m not alone in my decision to move: I know of a few nurses who are leaving the Canadian public system for the American one. Prior to securing the South Carolina job, I applied for a job in Texas. The interviewers were Canadians who moved south for temporary work and never came back. The South Carolina recruiters told me there are 11 Canadians working at the hospital I’m about to join. 

It hurts me to leave Canada. I love the idea of everybody being able to get the health care they need—and not having to pay for it—but our system is broken and needs to change. Sometimes, I feel like I’m abandoning our country right when it’s in a crisis, but I have to look out for my family. In South Carolina, I’ll be able to come home to my husband and son every single night and give them big hugs and kisses after a bad day. And when I log on to the website of my new hospital to check the emergency room’s current wait time, it doesn’t say 19 hours. It says 12 minutes.

–As told to Emily Latimer 

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.