Travel Nurse Career Guide: ICU
ICU nurses care for patients who are critically ill. This type of nursing is not for the faint-of-heart as these patients require the highest acuity of care. ICU nurses need a powerful combination of skills, knowledge, and proactive thinking to sustain life for the most fragile of patients. Whether you’re a new grad nurse thinking about travel nursing or an experienced ICU nurse stepping into travel, this insight into what it’s like working in critical care units across the country.
- Part 1: What is an ICU Nurse?
- Part 2: ICU Travel Nurse Experience & Certifications
- Part 3: What is it Like to Work as an ICU Travel Nurse?
- Part 4: ICU Travel Nurse Advice
- Part 5: Who to Follow & ICU Resources
Part 1: What is an ICU Nurse?
ICU nurses care for patients who are, at the very least, intubated, ventilated, and on life-sustaining medication drips. Working in critical care where life hangs by a thread, nurses must be meticulously organized team players with a deep understanding of disease pathology. Long-term wellness is the name of the game. Things can change quickly for a patient in the ICU, so nurses need top-notch critical thinking skills to act swiftly. Critical care nurses also must deal with anxious family members, questions about their patients’ care, and tough emotional strain as they often see patients who are at their sickest. But they also get to see patients go from near-death to healthy enough to go home. And that’s a cause for celebration.
ICU RN, Felino
What is it like to work as an ICU nurse in facilities all over the country? Listen to TNAA Ambassador Felino to tell us all about his specialty on his podcast:
ICU RN, Ally
What is it like to work as an ICU nurse in facilities all over the country? We asked TNAA Ambassador Ally to tell us all about her specialty:
“I chose ICU from the moment I was in nursing school. Initially, I just wanted to do ER, but then I realized how much I didn’t just want to fix boo-boos, and instead, I wanted to fix people from their sickest. I specifically chose CVICU because I fell in love with hearts in nursing school. For me, a heart is just like any other pump — changing out vessels or valves or even the whole pump is simple and black and white.
For me, my favorite thing is fixing people. Taking someone from their sickest and knocking on death’s door to being up and walking and talking is absolutely amazing! I love being able to provide care and a healing hand to those in need. I also like the camaraderie and the teamwork of the ICU. Generally speaking, if you have a patient that is going downhill fast, you will have help of some sort, you’re never alone if you have a good team to work with.”
ICU RN, Tiff
What is it like to work as an ICU nurse in facilities all over the country? We asked TNAA Ambassador Tiff to tell us all about her specialty:
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“I choose critical care as my specialty because I always knew I wanted to work with the sickest of the sick. I went straight into the ICU as a new grad and have never looked back! I have my CCRN (critical care certification). My favorite thing is the challenge of complex patients. I also love seeing those patients get better and get out of the hospital! In the ICU, we deal with a lot of bad stuff, but when you see your hard work pay off, it’s really rewarding.”
Part 2: ICU Travel Nurse Experience & Certifications
To work as a travel nurse, you need at least 1 year of experience in an acute care facility. And ICU travel nurse requirements are no different. Most facilities want to see that you have had time to develop your skills before you travel as you often will have limited orientation on assignment.
Most ICU nurses hold the following certifications:
- BLS, Basic Life Support
- ACLS, Advanced Cardiac Life Support
Many ICU nurses build their credentials with the following certifications:
- CCRN, Critical Care Certification
- CNRN, Certified Neuroscience Registered Nurse
- CVRN, Certified Cardiac Registered Nurse
- NIH, Stroke Certification from NIHSS
- TNCC: Trauma Nursing Core Course
Part 3: What is it Like to Work as an ICU Travel Nurse?
Our travelers have worked in ICUs all over the country. And walking into a new facility every 13 weeks makes the job of caring for critically ill patients inherently different.
“I tell people that traveling in the ICU is like floating to another unit. Initially, you have no idea where anything is, you don’t know what the docs like, and you don’t know the crew. But, by the end of an assignment, you make lifelong friends, you meet fellow travelers who are like family, and you learn the quirks of the docs on the unit. You learn who to call for what, where to hunt down certain phone numbers, and how the hospital wants things done. Patient care is patient care; nothing really changes in that case. What changes is how the hospital wants you to do the things you know, but do it their way.” — Ally
“Working as an ICU travel nurse is not without its challenges. You have to be able to hit the ground running, with maybe only one shift of unit orientation (as with most specialties). Sometimes you have to “prove yourself” to the staff and docs that you know what you’re doing, and you can handle the really critical patients. I’ve heard of some travelers not being given higher acuity patients because the staff/charge nurse isn’t familiar with your abilities. My biggest advice, ALWAYS be up-front about your skills. If they try to give you a patient you aren’t comfortable with, TELL THEM. I have learned a lot of new stuff working in different ICUs than I’m used to (I.e., I’ve been working neuro/trauma, which isn’t my background, but I’ve learned so much and gained new skills). Be confident, but not cocky, in your practice.
As a traveler, you will float. Sometimes to a step-down unit, sometimes to other ICUs, or wherever they need you. Be flexible with this, ask in your interview what the float expectations are, and again, know your capabilities. Most facilities aren’t going to float an ICU nurse to OB, but always be sure! I have floated 2 out of 3 shifts in one week and then not floated for nearly the whole assignment. Floating can suck, but it comes with the territory.” — Tiff
Part 4: ICU Travel Nurse Advice
- Be flexible. Remember, you are there to help. If you have to float, do it graciously. If you need to take a triple, take a triple. If you need to give up a patient to take another, do it. They are short-staffed and need your help, so help to the best of your ability.
- Ask questions. If you don’t know the right way to do something, or what the policy is, ask. If you haven’t taken a skill in a couple of contracts, ask for someone to refresh your memory and show you how that hospital does the skill and the charting. Asking for help is not frowned upon, and they would usually much rather have you ask questions than you assume, and then you cause patient harm.
- Don’t compare hospitals! This is a huge one because hospitals do things differently from others, and that’s OKAY! You are there to help them, not tell them, “well, at this place, they did it this way, and I like it better.” Instead, you can say, “In previous hospitals, I have worked I did it this way, what is the preferred way for me to do this here?” If hospitals ask for opinions on ways to do something better, feel free to let them know in the most respectful way possible.
Part 5: Who to Follow & ICU Resources
- AACN: American Association of Critical Care Nurses
- Instagram Accounts– beware, these accounts can get a little wild:
- Instagram Hashtags — follow these hashtags to find relevant content shared amongst your ICU peers