Personal Finance

Health-care workers on the front-line of the pandemic have another concern: Crushing student loan debt

Key Points
  • To become a certified registered nurse anesthetist, Tom Nigro took on around $160,000 in student loans. 
  • That debt nagged at him even as he worked to keep coronavirus patients alive during the pandemic. 

This past April was a month Tom Nigro will never forget.

As a certified registered nurse anesthetist, Nigro was well-equipped to serve victims of the coronavirus and moved that month from his apartment in Milwaukee to New York City – then the epicenter of the pandemic. On April 8, for example, more than 5,581 New Yorkers tested positive for the virus, 1,533 entered the hospital and 547 people died.

"On the day I walked in, many patients were on ventilators," said Nigro, 33, who was stationed at Mt. Sinai Hospital in Brooklyn. A question he often got: "Am I going to die?"

Nigro spent the month trying to find ways to keep people breathing, and talking to panicked family members. "Nothing can prepare you for the amount of death this virus has caused," he said. "It was crushing."

Yet despite the intense month, one thing that never moved from the back of his mind: The $160,000 in student loans he took out to become a health-care worker.

To become a certified registered nurse anesthetist, Tom Nigro borrowed around $160,000.
Source: Tom Nigro

Many of the doctors and nurses working beside Nigro during the pandemic were likely plagued by a similar debt load. 

The average medical student who takes out loans owes more than $200,000, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges.

Overall, health-care workers tend to borrow more than other graduate students. 

House Democrats introduced legislation in May that would have forgiven health care workers' student debt but the bill hasn't gone anywhere. The historic stimulus package Congress passed in March granted federal student loan borrowers a six-month reprieve from their bills, though that doesn't help people like Nigro who had refinanced their debt with a private lender.  

"I don't think I know anyone personally who doesn't have debt in my profession," Nigro said. 

It took Nigro nearly a decade of schooling to become a certified registered nurse anesthetist. And even though he worked throughout much of that time, he still needed to borrow heavily to pay for his education. 

"I grew up below the poverty line," he said. His mother owned a laundromat and worked side jobs; his father was not in the picture.

"I didn't have enough to pay more than 2%  or 3% of the actual cost of tuition. Borrowing seemed like the normal thing to do," he said.

In total, he took out around $160,000 in student loans.

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Despite his advanced degrees, he said the loans make it hard for him to feel that he's moving forward. Even though he makes a good living now – over $200,000 a year – he still doesn't know if he'll ever be able to ever buy a house or start a family.

His monthly student loan bill is around $1,400.

"People are spending more time paying back their loans than living their life," Nigro said. 

The debt has also impacted his career choices. Instead of working at a state hospital, where he could provide anesthesia to undeserved patients, he has taken a job at a private company because it's more lucrative.  

Without the loans, he said, "I would certainly do more public service work." 

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