1. Gonzalez, Lillian BSN, RN

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At age 18 I left home to join the Marine Corps and see the world. Instead, I saw four years at Camp Pendleton, California, got married, and had children. Twenty years later, a Veterans Affairs counselor told me, "There's a nursing shortage. The VA will pay for your four-year degree if you choose nursing."


I had dreamed of getting a four-year degree, but in nursing? It's a degree, I decided. How hard could it be?


"If you could get through boot camp," a clinical instructor said, "nursing school should be a breeze." I soon discovered it was far more difficult than the two months I spent at an all-female Marine Corps boot camp.


The thought of seeing people helpless, naked, and vulnerable did not appeal to me. But I wanted that four-year degree, so I stuck with it. Like most nursing students, I endured-the labs, late-night care plans, volumes of technical reading, exhausting clinicals, and militant instructors, not to mention my needy family, part-time job, and 130-mile round-trip commute to school-all with the hopes of landing an administrative job after getting my bachelor's degree in nursing.


After graduating from nursing school and failing to find that coveted administrative job, I begrudgingly accepted a night position on a busy maternity ward where seasoned nurses taught me to be a competent maternal-child nurse. To my amazement, I loved the work. Teaching breastfeeding, changing diapers-even the perineal care-were skills I never knew I'd be proud to master.


But a year later I became restless. My dream and desire to travel were still alive. So I called a traveling nurse agency. "I've been a nurse only 11 months," I said, "and all I know is postpartum and newborn nursery care. Are there any jobs anywhere in the country for someone like me?"

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Maybe it was hopeless, but I wanted to know what I needed to qualify. When would I be ready to be a traveling nurse? My children were grown. My parents were deceased. My husband was retired and willing to indulge me. I waited anxiously as I listened to the recruiter's fingers clicking away at a keyboard, searching through a database.


Finally, she said, "You qualify for 28 positions across the country-including Hawaii and the Virgin Islands. Which one do you want?"


So began my journey in travel nursing. During that first year, my husband and I spent the spring in Houston, a mild summer in San Jose, California, autumn among the leaves in the Ozarks, and Christmas back in San Antonio among family.


Remarkable nurses mentored me everywhere I went. I made new friends who showed me and my husband (and our dog) the sights of their hometowns. I worked in many specialties, learned new skills, and listened to the stories of patients and their loved ones.


I'll never forget a Romanian patient, Ms. Brancusi, and her family in San Jose. Like my mother, she didn't speak much English, and she was dying of cancer. Having helped both of my parents die with dignity, I helped Ms. Brancusi and her family find peace in the inevitable.


I met Josefina Martinez, a 17-year-old undocumented resident in Houston whom I bonded with in Spanish. She shared her story about the devastation of her life in Mexico. She explained how she managed to sneak across the U.S.-Texas border, pregnant, risking everything, in the hopes of a brighter future for her unborn daughter.


And boy, did those nurses in Springfield, Missouri, laugh at me when I thought an Amish couple, all decked out in their traditional attire, were dressed for Halloween.


I changed wet-to-dry dressings for infected cesarean sections, and provided wound care to recent amputees and skin care to people with liver failure whose flesh appeared to rot off of their bodies. I found myself in a renal-oncology floor taking care of extremely ill patients.


While I'm sure to meet a new set of obstacles wherever I go, I'm also confident that I'll gain new skills and bond with new nurses, nurses aides, and others whom I might add to my growing list of long-term friendships. Twenty-four years ago, I hoped to see the world as I proudly served my country. Today, I see the world as I proudly serve my patients.