SIOUX CITY -- When she was a child, Katie Wictor dreamed of becoming a cats-only veterinarian, as she found dogs a bit frightening.
As she grew up, Wictor realized limiting her pool of patients to felines probably wasn't the best career choice. Instead, she opted to take care of humans as a registered nurse.
On a recent Tuesday morning, Wictor, 21, rubbed some hand sanitizer on her hands before entering patient Alexandra Raub's room in UnityPoint Health-St. Luke's pediatric unit.
"I'm going to listen to you again," she said, before placing her stethoscope on the 7-year-old Sioux City girl's chest. "Are you still feeling short of breath?"
Alexandra, who was battling pneumonia, shook her head.
Millennials -- those born after 1980 and before 2000 -- like Wictor, are embracing the nursing profession, filling shortages in some areas of the country that health care experts have worried about for years. Still, the retirement of baby boomer nurses is expected to reduce growth in the size of the registered nursing workforce to 1.3 percent per year through 2030.
"My aunt and my grandma were nurses, so I knew that I wanted to help people," said Wictor, who is from South Sioux City. "I didn't know necessarily that there was a nursing shortage until I got into nursing school."
A study published in the journal Health Affairs in October found that millennials are entering the nursing workforce at nearly double the rate of the baby boomers -- the largest segment of the registered nursing workforce from 1981 to 2012 -- who are now retiring. According to the study, millennials were also 60 percent more likely to become registered nurses than Gen X'ers, people born between 1965 and 1981.
Susan Bowers, dean of the nursing department at St. Luke's College, said more students are pursing a bachelor's degree in nursing at the Sioux City college, but she said Siouxland's need for nurses persists.
"What I see in our area is that we have a lot of baby boomers who are retiring and we don't have as many millennials that are going to take up that slack," she said. "We do predict that this nursing shortage is going to be continued for quite a while."
Bowers said millennials are leaving Northwest Iowa for the coasts and the mountain states. She said travel nursing is popular with millennials because it allows them to see the country. After working at a hospital or facility for six weeks or six months, she said travel nurses move on to another location.
"One way we are dealing with the nursing shortage is by using travelers," she said. "It costs a lot of money to hire travelers, so hospitals would prefer to hire permanent nurses."
A group of millennial nurses at Mercy Medical Center said they entered the profession because they either had a desire to help others or were inspired after receiving care themselves.
Vanessa Klug, 23, of Waterbury, Nebraska, injured her hand badly in an incident involving a lawnmower, while Tia Crook, 22, of Sioux City, was in and out of the hospital with heart issues as a child. They both chose nursing.
Jacob Trierweiler, a 27-year-old clinical nurse manager from Sioux City, said he was a patient at Mercy Medical Center when he was 17.
"I was diagnosed as a type 1 diabetic. I had great nurses that took care of me here -- that's the reason I wanted to be a nurse myself," he said.
Within two years of entering St. Luke's College, Bowers said students can become a registered nurse. But she said many millennial nurses don't stop there. She said they pursue a bachelor's degree while working.
"Yes, they want to get out and start working, but they're not done. They're continuing on to get their bachelor's and even on to graduate school," she said. "Many of them are not even stepping out between degrees."
LaRessa Ryan, a 35-year-old registered nurse from Sioux City who works in the post critical care unit at Mercy, said she thinks nursing appeals to millennials because it offers a variety of career options. Nurses can work at the bedside, in the operating room, in the classroom or in health care administration.
"There's a lot of growth. It doesn't take many years to do it if that's what you want to do," said Ryan, who hopes to become a nurse practitioner and eventually go into teaching. "Starting out, the pay is pretty decent, but you do work very hard for your money."
According to Bureau of Labor Statistics data, registered nurses working in Iowa had a median hourly wage of $26.59 in 2016.
If she were a health care employer, Bowers said she would hire millennials. Besides being energetic and bright, she said millennials like to work in teams, crave instant feedback and are not afraid to question others. She said millennial nurses have a greater awareness of work-life balance than baby boomers, which could explain why many millennial nurses are pursing or considering the path of nurse practitioner, an occupation that offers more flexibility.
That's Wictor's goal, but right now, she's enjoying caring for patients at the bedside.
"It's really rewarding. Even in the three weeks that I've been on orientation, I love it already," she said.