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A nurse frustrated by staffing shortages and career obstacles leaves hospital job to drive 18-wheeler

<i>Courtesy Leah Gorham</i><br/>Leah Gorham was an LPN for almost 16 years.
Courtesy Leah Gorham
Leah Gorham was an LPN for almost 16 years.

By David Williams, CNN

After years of caring for surgery patients at a Canadian hospital, a veteran nurse has left the profession to start a new, high-demand career as a long-haul truck driver.

Leah Gorham, 42, said she loved being a nurse but frustrations over persistent staff shortages — which she said started before the Covid-19 pandemic — and a lack of advancement led her to look for new opportunities.

Her boyfriend, who’s also a truck driver and an independent owner-operator, suggested she might like life on the open road.

“I was just going to regret my career being where it was and not being able to advance was really maddening to me,” Gorham told CNN. “So I just I needed to do something else.”

Gorham’s career change comes as the trucking industry struggles to fill a huge number of vacancies to help shore up the struggling supply chain. In October, the American Trucking Associations said the industry was short a record 80,000 drivers.

Gorham enrolled in a 12-week truck-driving program last October, spending almost $8,000 ($10,000 Canadian) to get her license.

Now she and her boyfriend drive together.

“Eventually, we’re going to be trading off like, I’m going to sleep when he’s driving, but right now, while I’m still training … it’s almost like we’re one independent super-driver,” she said.

Gorham talked to CNN from a truck stop in Tom Brooks, Virginia, on Wednesday where the couple had stopped on the way to South Carolina. They were headed back north on Friday to haul a load of tires to Quebec and will then make a run to Indiana.

Before she started driving, Gorham hadn’t traveled much, or even left New Brunswick Province very often over the past 20 years.

Now, she’s getting to see a lot of the US and Canada from the cab of the 18-wheeler.

Gorham was inspired to become a licensed practical nurse (LPN) by the healthcare workers who cared for her dad, who died of pancreatic cancer at 40.

“It was something that I just took off with, and I absolutely loved it and for a long time,” she said. “I couldn’t even imagine doing anything else.”

Gorham worked at St. John Regional Hospital in New Brunswick for almost 16 years in neurosurgery and then general surgery. She applied to go back to school for her bachelor’s degree, so she could become a registered nurse, but her applications kept getting rejected.

Gorham said she’d gotten about as high as she could on the career ladder without upgrading her qualifications.

The New Brunswick government has been working to increase the number of available nursing school seats in the province, and a 2019 report by the Department of Health predicted a shortage of 130 nurses per year over the next 10 years — and that was before the strains caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

“This nursing problem has been there my entire career, Gorham said. “The pandemic is just showing the real stress of the situation.”

The New Brunswick Nurses Union told the CBC, a CNN news partner, the province has 1,000 registered nurse vacancies between nursing homes and the regional health authorities.

The union said there’s also a shortage of some 300 licensed practical nurses, the CBC reported.

Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, said Friday the infections from the Omicron variant may have peaked nationally.

“However, daily hospital and ICU numbers are still rising steeply, and many hospitals across Canada are under intense strain,” Tam said.

Gorham said the staff shortage was hard on everyone and “there was no end in sight.”

But Gorham does miss nursing and the people she worked with and has tremendous respect for the hard work they do. She’s kept her license on an inactive status, so she could go back to nursing.

“I do have time to see [if] maybe I want to go back casually or something like that just to maintain my license because, I put my time in I did really love it,” she said.

But for now, she’s really happy behind the wheel.

Gorham’s only gotten one paycheck so far, but said it was more than she got at her old job.

“What we’re interested in is sort of having the freedom and not pushing that real hard and still living,” she said. “It’s sort of just a balance. We don’t need to be rich over this.”

Gorham said driving is more relaxed than the hectic, always-on-the-go life at the hospital, but maneuvering the massive, 13-speed vehicle presents new challenges.

“It is not anything like my standard car,” she said. “There’s a lot of hazards involved in it. I find a lot of people are unaware how difficult it really is.”

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