NurseChoice travel nurse Deborah Tillman at Kaiser Moscone Vaccine Center
Profiles and Features May 13, 2021

Travel Nurse Comes Full Circle in Battle Against COVID-19

By Joseph Duffy, a contributor

During Nurses Month in May, NurseChoice is proud to highlight some of the countless stories of nurses’ vital contributions, unselfishness, and uncommon dedication that help them make a difference every day. 

Deborah Tillman, RN, BSN, MSN, has recently come full circle in her battle against the coronavirus pandemic.

In March of 2020, she was on a NurseChoice travel assignment with Kaiser Permanente in Oakland, California, when the Grand Princess, a cruise ship with several COVID-19 patients aboard, docked off the San Francisco coast. Kaiser Oakland was one of the hospitals where these COVID patients were treated, and Deborah got her introduction to the deadly virus.

"I was there when we got the patients," Deborah said. “At the time, we thought you could get COVID in every kind of way. People were dying quickly from it. It was a terrifying time."

Back in the Bay Area for a very different assignment

Today, Deborah is back in the San Francisco Bay Area on assignment, this time helping to vaccinate people at the Kaiser Moscone Vaccine Center in downtown San Francisco.

"Going from helping sick patients who came off the cruise ship to now vaccinating people is surreal," she said. "But now I see the light at the end of the tunnel."

After her assignment at Kaiser Oakland, Deborah, who has a pre-existing condition that made it risky for her to be exposed to COVID, stayed on the sidelines during most of the pandemic. But when NurseChoice recruiter Sallie Small contacted her with the vaccination center opportunity, Deborah didn't hesitate to go.

"This is the seventh contract I've done with Kaiser in California, and the Moscone Vaccine Center is the best contract I've ever had," she said. "This opportunity has allowed me to see the solution to the virus. We are finally moving forward."

Being at the vaccination center has been an emotional experience for Deborah, who travels with her 11-year-old daughter, Kaelin. She feels she is doing her part to fight this disease and that her daughter will likely later read about this national vaccination effort.

"One day, your kids are going to read about this," Deborah told her daughter. "And you can be proud that your mom was part of the solution and your mom helped vaccinate the country."

Deborah Tillman2.jpg

Experiencing travel nursing and new cultures

Earlier in her career, Deborah was working as a per diem nurse in Orlando, Florida, when she met a travel nurse who described traveling as "glorious." It definitely piqued her interest.

Having grown up in what she described as a sheltered atmosphere, she had always thought traveling would be a way to come into her own. She looked forward to meeting new people, experiencing new cultures, and enjoying different experiences.

At about the same time that Deborah graduated from nursing school in 1996, she also got married. So her ability to travel was put on hold.

Then, in 2005, her relationship with her husband ended. Having achieved her master's degree in nursing, she was ready to take her next career step: taking a travel nurse assignment in Modesto, California. She called it one of her most memorable travel experiences.

She remembered how welcoming her new colleagues and neighbors were. And as a black female, she said it was the perfect assignment because she wanted to explore a place where few people looked like her.

During her time in Modesto, Deborah met members of the Old German Baptist Brethren Church, a conservative church steeped in tradition. Deborah was in awe of their simple living, limited use of technology, and clothing and appearance regulations. She was invited to their church and took part in their traditions, including making quilts and food to distribute to local hospitals.

"They embraced me, and I learned so much about them as well as myself," Deborah said. "I was the first black person in the church in over 50 years."

Choosing NurseChoice

Deborah has worked with numerous travel nurse agencies and landed at NurseChoice in 2016, an AMN Healthcare company specializing in short-term contract nursing jobs, from 3 weeks to 13 weeks in duration. That's how she met recruiter Sallie Small, with who she worked until recently.

"I choose my travel companies largely based on the recruiter," she said.

During their time working together, Deborah was amazed at how Sallie went above and beyond to help.

"Sallie would do research and find out about the schools my daughter could attend that were near my assignments," said Deborah. "Sallie used to be a teacher and knew that education was important to me. Her hard work helped me decide whether to take an assignment. She's not just trying to get me a contract just because she's trying to meet a quota. She's trying to make sure I'm happy, as well."

Today, NurseChoice recruiter Latham Staples takes care of Deborah, and she has found he has a similar, caring work ethic. She "loves" working with him and is looking forward to more assignments together.

Nurses Month and the importance of nurse recognition

Nurses Month in May celebrates and recognizes the critical work of nurses like Deborah, and the second week of the month is specifically focused on nurse recognition.

"Nurses are heroes all the time," Deborah said. "If people think we are heroes because of the pandemic, they should have gotten to know to nurse before the virus hit. When I started nursing, HIV was prevalent. We were as fearful of HIV as we were of COVID. We take care of patients who are very sick and who have contagious diseases all the time.”

“It's nice to have recognition during the pandemic,” she continued. “And I hope once COVID passes, nursing continues to get the recognition it deserves."

Deborah also hopes that people understand how much a “thank you” can mean for nurses giving their all to care for others.

"We chose to become nurses and to put our lives on the line so that others can live and get the best care that they deserve," she said. "It's helpful that people appreciate what we do because we love and believe in what we do. I know I love and believe in what I do because I'm still doing it after 25 years."


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