When I tell people I’m working as a locum tenens, most look at me with confusion, like I am speaking a foreign language. Which I am, as locum tenens is a Latin word that means “to hold the place of.” Once I see the confusion on their face, I quickly say, “a traveling doctor,” after which they usually respond with something like, “Oh! Like nurses that traveled to work in other hospitals during COVID.” Yes, that’s right, and I’m really not sure why nurses are traveling nurses, and doctors are locum tenens. Maybe it’s because it comes with the territory of being put up on a pedestal, as doctors most often are. It reminds me of “C.V.” something I only came to learn about during my medical training. It’s short for another Latin word, curriculum vitae, which means “a course of life,” and is really just a resume. And while some definitions of C.V. indicate it’s a short summary of a person’s career, I have seen some physician C.V.s that are mini novels, with lists not only of every publication but also every single lecture they have given. I guess it comes with the territory as I imagine a physician saying in a stuffy nasally voice, “I am applying for a locum tenens position and here is my curriculum vitae.”
So, what does that mean to be a locum? To stand in the place of? And what it is like? It means going to different states to cover for someone who is on vacation, or to fill a position while the hospital looks for a full-time doctor. I stay in a suite at a hotel, with a kitchen and a small living room, creating a small home away from home. I have been practicing as a locum ever since I left my full-time job in October, and I really love it, for so many reasons. The most important of which is autonomy. I get to decide when, where, and how much I want to work, a privilege I know, as I have saved up enough money to have a cushion, allowing me to not have to work full-time. Though I could work full time as a locum, I decided I wanted to work part-time for several months, to decompress, while I looked for full-time work. In my time off between assignments, I am catching up on household projects, cooking new recipes, learning how to bake bread, and reading as many books as I can. While I enjoy the break from full-time work, I also get restless and eager to return to patient care, to be of service to another human being, something locum fulfills.
My first traveling assignment was in Kentucky, the blue grass state, a place I had never been before, not even driven through on the six cross country drives I have done thus far in my lifetime. It was in November, there was still some burnt orange leaves on the trees, and it was warm. I worked at a very large Rehabilitation hospital, one the biggest in this company’s network. There were many physiatrists (physical medicine and rehabilitation or PM&R doctors like me), as well as a PM&R residency program. It was a busy assignment, with many admissions and discharges daily, and I really enjoyed seeing patients again and interacting with nursing and therapy staff.
Working there reminded me of why I went into medicine. I love not just taking care of patients, but listening to them tell their stories of how they ended up in the hospital, and what they wanted or needed to accomplish before they could go home. Most of the patients I saw were either medically complex, with generalized weakness and debility from heart surgeries, prolonged hospital stays, and severe infections, or sweet elderly patients who had fallen and broken their hips. I missed caring for patients with strokes, brain injuries, and even spinal cord injuries. These patients were reserved for the PM&R residents, so they could learn the nuances of caring for those patients, to prepare themselves for their board exams and eventual practices.
I am currently at my second traveling assignment, this one in Wisconsin, the Badger or Dairy state, another place I have never visited or driven through. I’m working at a small rehabilitation unit on the top floor of the hospital, with a grand view of the town and the sunrise. It’s a new rehabilitation unit, just opened this year, and the staff here are wonderful. It’s so refreshing to be in a place where I can hear laughter at the nursing station rather than complaining, and where the leadership team really collaborates to take the best care of their patients. It’s a place I would consider working full-time, if it had mountains, and if I had not already signed a contract to work in Anchorage, Alaska. Yes! I am moving to Anchorage with my husband and two cats next April, to start the next adventure of our lives. In the meantime, I’m going to continue traveling, spreading light, and learning lessons wherever I go.