Once my first contract as a travel nurse was completed, I realized that I had options. The current hospital I was working at had offered me an extension or I could start a whole new contract anywhere in the United States. I did neither. I ended up taking my first solo international trip with a one-way ticket to Costa Rica where I attended a Spanish Immersion School and completed my master’s degree — all because I lost a bet.
But, I’m getting ahead of myself. First, I had a decision to make and it was a big one. I turned to my mother for advice. “Why don’t you take some time off to think about it?” she offered. That option hadn’t crossed my mind.
I instantly thought about the vacation I was denied before I became a travel nurse at my staff job — an epic girls’ trip to Costa Rica that my co-workers and I had spent almost a year planning. The trip was cancelled due to “staffing needs” of the unit and the time off was denied last minute.
Things had changed, though. For the first time in my nursing career, I had the freedom to take a vacation whenever I wanted and for however long I wanted without having to get my boss’s approval. I immediately began replanning my dream trip with my friends — Costa Rica here we come! Unfortunately, no one else could get the time off. I was back to square one.
I sat at my computer staring at the Costa Rica itinerary that I had spent years planning. I turned to my mother to tell her the disappointing news. And, once again, she offered advice: “Who says you can’t go by yourself? You’ll meet friends there, and you can go to that Spanish Immersion School you’re always talking about.”
I laughed at the thought of flying to a foreign country all by myself. As a joke, I responded to my mother, “I’ll make you a bet. If I find a cheap ticket to Costa Rica, I’ll leave before the end of the week.” To my surprise, within minutes, I found a non-stop ticket direct to Costa Rica for less than $50. I snagged it without hesitation. A bet is a bet.
My stomach filled with butterflies as I booked a one-way ticket to a country I’d never been to. I was ready for whatever this journey would give me. A few days later all of the excitement faded and fear took over as I stood in the middle of the airport in a country where I didn’t speak the language.
Before I arrived in Costa Rica, all I could think of was sandy beaches and pina coladas — I hadn’t considered that the only Spanish word I knew as a labor and delivery nurse was empuje or push.
Now, all I could think was, “What did I get myself into? I have no idea what’s going on around me. Was this the right decision?”
I eventually made it out of the airport and onto the bus that would deliver me to the Spanish Immersion School in another city three hours away. When I checked into my new apartment and was welcomed by the school coordinators, I felt a huge sense of relief overcome me. I had made it. I was stronger than I thought.
My surge of confidence and pride in myself was replaced as I thought of my father. The grief hit me like a ton of bricks, but I knew this was where I needed to be six months after holding my father’s hand until he took his last breath. I was ready to encompass the attitude of Costa Rica — pure vida or pure life as they say.
Many people don’t know this but I was kicked out of a master’s program when my father was diagnosed with terminal cancer. The stress of being his caregiver and working full time caused my grades to suffer. As an “A” student my entire life, that was not only devastating, but I was ashamed to admit that I wasn’t able to keep up and complete the program as I planned.
If there was one thing this last year had taught me, it was that change is inevitable, but growth is optional.
And, I wanted to grow.
I wrote a letter to the president of Western Governors University explaining my circumstances and asked if an exception could be made to allow me to complete the program. To my surprise, the answer was yes. I took that as a sign and extended my stay in Costa Rica until I finished my degree.
My island routine: Monday through Thursday I attended Spanish school in the morning, took a lunchtime siesta (aka nap), and then worked on completing my master’s degree thesis until dinner. Every weekend, I spent with my newfound friends exploring the country.
By the end of my trip, I completed my MSN in leadership and management, had learned a new language, and made lasting friendships. And, most importantly, changed my outlook on life. By facing my fears and leaning in to what made me uncomfortable, I had an experience that changed my life for the better.
To grow, sometimes you just need to take the first step — or, in my case, bet.
Sarah Gaines, MSN, RNC-OB is a labor and delivery nurse, nurse mentor, and educator that has been a travel nurse for the last three years.
Passionate about travel nursing (14 contracts and counting!), she’s created the 6 Figure Travel Nurse Course to educate and empower nurses to maximize their income so they can work less and travel more.