I lost my husband and worked as a Covid nurse: then travel gave me joy back

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My husband passed away in November 2019, after years battling a drug addiction that began when he had a surgery. We had been together since I was 17. I was living on my own in the home we used to share, when – a few months later – the pandemic struck.

At the time, I was working as a charge nurse in the progressive care unit of a large hospital based in Charleston, South Carolina. At first, everything was very quiet but by June 2020 we got inundated. It wasn’t just Covid cases; we also had patients who hadn’t been taking care of themselves, because they’d been too scared to come in.

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The unit I was on went into survival mode. Even prior to the pandemic, our work-load was heavy and we didn’t always have the resources we needed. So, when Covid arrived and we were running out of staff and space, every shift was a struggle. 

Everyone on the unit was best friends – we’d worked together a long time – and we put in a lot of extra hours to help each other out. I was working up to six days a week at one point, on shifts that barely left time for a quick drink of water. On top of that, as a charge nurse, I was a resource for other nurses on my floor. I had to take care of my patients, but also answer questions and try to support the wider team.

After months in survival mode, I was overwhelmed and burnt out

It got to the point that I couldn’t do it anymore. I was overwhelmed and burnt out. In January 2021, I gave in my notice and quit. I took a month out, and then I started working as a travel nurse on assignments in Columbia, South Carolina and Los Angeles. This type of freelance nursing pays more and comes with benefits like a housing stipend. So I was able to save up and make the most of my free time between contracts.

For the first time in my life, I began travelling. I’d never done it before. I’d been in a serious relationship from such a young age, and in my 20s, I was focused on getting a job and a house. Suddenly, I found myself with the freedom to explore; I booked a vacation to Europe – visiting France, Spain and the Netherlands – and I later joined an expedition to Lapland. 

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On some occasions, I signed up for group trips and at other times, I travelled solo. Either way, I felt like a caged bird that had been released. I’d spent so much of my life in wife and family mode, I ended up boxed into these pre-set boundaries. When I began travelling, I realised how big the world is – how much there is to life beyond my little corner of it. It gave me hope. 

It made me think about what I really wanted to do with my life, too. The thought of going back to being a full-time charge nurse filled me with panic. I burnt out after 10 years in the profession; there was no way I could do another 50. 

When I began travelling, I realised how big the world is. It gave me hope

I started reflecting on the things I’d enjoyed growing up – and I remembered that I’d always loved writing. I began a series of writing courses, including a retreat in Paris, and I started work on a novel; a work of fiction based around Norse mythology. 

Throughout this process, I was terrified; I had no idea what I was doing. Every day, I questioned why I was doing it. At the same time, I was still trying to regulate my nervous system and calm down. My time in nursing meant I was in permanent fight-or-flight mode, and it took a long time to wind down from that and feel like things were OK.

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It was around this point that I joined a Flash Pack escape to Argentina. I’ve always wanted to see Patagonia and I liked the idea of the day-long trek to the Laguna de los Tres viewpoint. It felt like an exciting challenge. I joined the trip with two friends I’d met while travelling previously; but I also felt immediately at home with the wider group.

From the moment we met at our welcome meal in Buenos Aires, everyone clicked. We were all open, experienced solo travellers and we got on so well. We constantly hung out as a group – even when we didn’t have to. That’s how good the dynamic was. 

From the moment we met in Buenos Aires, everyone in our group clicked

As it happened, one of the women on the trip had also lost her husband. It’s the first time I’ve met someone who had been through a similar experience to me, in terms of facing that bereavement at a young age. By that point, I’d dealt with a lot of my grief already on my own. But it made me feel a bit better to share that experience; and to understand some of what she was going through. 

I loved our first night together in the city, where we learnt to make cocktails and shared a private dinner. I’m actually a vegan but throughout my stay in Argentina – a country famed for its steak – everyone was so accommodating. It was amazing to have delicious vegan food organised for me; it was all planned out. 

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Patagonia itself was peaceful and beautiful. The weather was perfect while we were there. I loved our stay at the Laguna Condor Mountain Hut and my favourite part of the day-long hike was probably being able to finish it! The route to the foot of Mount Fitz Roy was gorgeous and there’s a huge sense of achievement that comes with just keeping going until you’re done. I thought, “Holy s**t, I just hiked for like nine hours!” 

Kayaking down the Río de las Vueltas was an incredible experience, too, and our Pack Leader, Sol, was amazing. We called her “Mum” by the end of it; she was so good at looking after us, and arranging everything we needed.

Travel has reinvented my ability to find joy and be inspired by life

There’s something about being in nature, making new friends and immersing yourself in another culture that leaves you feeling great. I was so relaxed and inspired after returning from my Argentina trip. I ended up writing the first draft of my second book, a medical thriller set in the 1800s, in a month! It took me a year the first time around because I was fighting myself so much. 

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I guess you could say that a group trip to Argentina – and travelling more generally – has reinvented my ability to find joy in life. I wasn’t happy beforehand; I was going through the motions, and I was weighed down by the things I felt I “had” to do.

Now, I’m in a completely different space. After I ran out of my savings, I sold my house – and that’s given me yet more freedom to write and explore. I have so many ideas, no real answers and I feel uplifted. I can’t wait to continue seeing the world, making amazing new friends en-route. 

Summer McDaniel is a nurse-turned-novelist based in South Carolina. She travelled with Flash Pack to Argentina.

Got a story or adventure that could inspire a solo traveller like you? Tag @flashpack on social or email [email protected] to be featured.

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