MARTIN, Tenn. — It’s an understatement to say that life is a journey for Drew and Ashley Freeman. As traveling registered nurses, moving to another hospital somewhere far away is always a possibility. Their journey now brings new possibilities as both were recognized with Bachelor of Science in nursing degrees Dec. 14 from the University of Tennessee at Martin. Although the couple was unable to attend commencement, a private celebration worked just fine from their home in New Smyrna Beach, Fla., located south of Daytona Beach.
The Freemans report a temperature of 80 degrees on this December day as they talk by phone on their day off. Bert Fish Medical Center, their third stop in three years, as traveling nurses, is minutes from the Atlantic Ocean. Drew is on contract and oversees the heart catheterization lab, while Ashley is a pool employee of the hospital and works in the emergency department full time. The road might someday lead them back to West Tennessee, but for now, working in the Sunshine State and preparing for the next step in their shared educational journey keeps them focused.
Ashley was born in Akron, Ohio, and at age four moved to Medon. She attended Trinity Christian Academy until the 10th grade when she decided to complete high school early. “My freshman year out of high school, one of my really good friends, she passed away from bacterial meningitis, …” she said, citing one factor that prompted her to complete high school early through Gateway Christian Schools. She enrolled fall 2007 in Jackson State Community College’s associate degree program in nursing after receiving her high school diploma.
Drew, a Jackson native, graduated in 1999 from Jackson Christian School. He attended Jackson State for three semesters after high school but lacked direction and quit school to work in various jobs, including his family’s construction business. In 2004 at age 23, he decided to pursue a longtime interest in health care and returned to Jackson State to complete an associate degree in nursing. “So, when you go for nursing,” Drew said of his career choice, “you have a specific job that you’re qualified to do that only people that went through nursing are able to do. And that gave me a sense of accomplishment and a direction also.”
However, restaurant work, not health care, brought Drew and Ashley together. He waited tables at Red Lobster in Jackson for four years while completing his nursing prerequisites and pursuing his degree. She was hired as a hostess; they met, married and continued work toward their degrees. “We spent the first three years of our relationship in nursing school pretty much,” Ashley remembered.
The two shared much in common, including a desire to see and experience new things. “One of our goals the whole time was to travel as nurses, not only for the financial benefits but for the excitement of wanting to see new places and see how different people do different things,” Drew said. “But you have to have a year of experience before they’ll let you travel, so we got her through nursing school, let her get her a year of experience in the emergency room, which is where she still works when we travel, and we hit the road,” Drew said.
Both worked at Jackson-Madison County General Hospital until the couple accepted their first travel positions in April 2011 in Atlanta, Ga. There she worked at WellStar Cobb Hospital and he at Southern Regional Medical Center. “Sometimes we’ve been lucky and have gotten jobs at the exact same hospital, and sometimes we have to find them as close as we can together, you know, within 30 or 45 minutes of each other,” Drew said.
Their journey continued nine months later as they moved to Salisbury, N.C., near Charlotte, and then six months after that to their current positions at Bert Fish Medical Center, “which is our favorite stop obviously, because we’ve almost been here two years now,” Drew said.
Moving is never easy, but in the world of traveling nurses, recruiting companies work directly with the hospitals. Positions are advertised by the hospitals, prospects can have the recruiting company submit information, and the hospital has the option to call for an interview. If an offer is extended and accepted, “Usually we have a week or two to get there, and then it’s a three-month contract,” Drew said.
All moving arrangements are made by the recruiting agency, which also provides housing and hospital information. “They help you with housing, and they give you all the information for the hospital, so really before we get there, we really don’t have anything to do with the actual hospital until our first day,” Ashley said.
Contracts can be extended, and the Freemans have normally been offered an extension. “Kind of once you get settled, it’s nice to stay a little bit longer than three months,” Ashley said. “But then if you don't like it, it’s nice to be able to leave as well.”
Even as they moved and worked, the Freemans wanted to complete bachelor’s degrees and considered different schools. UT Martin’s RN to BSN program surfaced as the best fit. “We knew we needed something with a little bit of flexibility,” Ashley said. “We both wanted to continue working full time, and we knew we were going to be traveling, but we still wanted to get the degree from somewhere close to home, …” Ashley said.
The Freemans credit Dr. Nancy Warren, UT Martin professor of nursing, with getting them started and encouraging them through the program. “Dr. Warren was absolutely wonderful,” Ashley said. “She really understood, as far as just nursing students, our situation trying to work full time while going to school, and it just was set up perfect for us.”
Both were accepted into the program and began classes in spring 2011. Most courses were offered online, and Ashley estimates that they took 90 percent of their classes together. The only time they came to campus as students was to test out of a pharmacology class previously taken at Jackson State. “Thankfully we both passed it, so we didn’t have to take the class,” Ashley said as they both laughed. “It was the last thing we had to do before we got our degree. …” They finished their courses in the summer, but because UT Martin does not hold summer commencement, their degrees were conferred Dec. 14.
“Ashley and Drew were very successful in the UTM online nursing program, because they were goal oriented and knew they wanted to obtain a BSN degree,” Nancy Warren said in email comments about the couple. She added, “They are successful nurses because they are invested in a career that they both love. They care about people and their health and want to be a part of that healing process that takes place between a nurse and their patients.”
Even as they celebrate earning another degree, both are ready to pursue more education. The Freemans are applying to nurse practitioner programs, focusing primarily on Union University’s accelerated program. Drew’s contract extends through April, so returning to Tennessee would happen after his contract is up. Always looking down the road, they’ve maintained a home in Jackson during their three years of traveling.
Classes would begin in August if accepted to Union, but they’re also considering online programs at other schools. “We’ve got a couple of different backup plans just in case,” Ashley said. “Without a doubt, though, we know for sure we want to go ahead and get our master’s program started in the fall one way or the other.”
Whatever is next in their journey, the Freemans will do it as a team.
“We do everything together. Our days off we spend together,” Ashley said. “We pretty much are tied to each other when it comes down to it with us moving around so much.”
She added, “But it makes our relationship strong, and we have plenty of stories and different experiences from it for sure.”