Monday, January 6, 2020

The Good Nurse: A Frightening True Story About A Maverick Madman

Stephen King calls it "Chilling!" People magazine called it "Riveting." Publishers Weekly called it, "A deeply unsettling addition to the true crime genre." I would call it all of the above and more.

My brother sent this to me (Thank you, Don!) because the story took place in a variety of hospitals near where our family lived in New Jersey and Eastern Pennsylvania, two of which were places my mother served as an RN--Somerset County Hospital and Lehigh Valley Hospital. When a story this dramatic occurs that close to home, your stomach quivers as you realize how close you were to something so very dark.

My wife once worked with someone who babysat Jim Jones's children in Indiana before he became an international sensation as a faith healer and cult leader. It's creepy to think about it.

It's quite apparent that author Charles Graeber did a lot of work gathering information for this book. Research alone doesn't make a compelling story, which is why a lot of true crime fails to really grip you. Graeber's telling of the story keeps you turning pages, makes you reluctant to put the book down.

The basic premise is that a male nurse was intentionally doing harm to patients--actually getting away with murder--in a variety of hospitals for a number of years. When his behavior raised suspicions, he'd quit and move on. Since nursing is an area where most hospitals seem to be short on help, he was always welcome wherever he went. Background checks were seldom done, and the cold-blooded killing could continue unabated.

The good part of this story is that the book did produce changes in how hospitals manage prescription medications. It seems the horrifying behavior should not have gone this long. Then again, hindsight is always 20/20 and the same could be said about the Milwaukee Cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer or serial killer Ted Bundy.

Just in case you haven't figured it out by now, this book is not about a "good" nurse. Though he confessed to 40 murders, experts believe he may have been responsible for 400 or more deaths.

The thing that is hard in these kinds of cases is trying to understand motivations. The more significant feature of the story is how the hospitals failed to follow up when there was clear evidence that someone was tampering with meds, injecting things into IV bags, and all the rest. These crimes were committed by a single man, but the hospitals' negligence in permitting all this to continue for 16 years seems inexcusable.

Reading through the reviews I see that many of the readers who liked the book best were themselves nurses who understand the processes by which meds are managed. Some said it should be required reading for people in the healthcare field. Another though said, "If you are already paranoid about being in the hospital don't touch this one!"

Here is an excerpt from a review that seems fairly representative of the positive ones:
First off, the fact that this is a true story terrifies me. That one single human being could be responsible for so many deaths, and not even care, just floors me. That said, the story is incredibly well-written. The reader sees and understands the story from several different points-of-view.

On the other hand, not all readers found this a compelling story. Though the book has 86% four and five star reviews, there were many who found it boring or not well written. I may have been biased by the fact that I was familiar with many of the locations in the book.

The publisher (Hachette) clearly did a good job in the promotion for this book in that a couple reviewers heard about it on NPR and another mentioned the story being on 60 Minutes.

The last hospital Cullen worked at was Somerset Hospital in New Jersey where my mother once worked in the 60s and 70s. The hospital did not come across well in the 60 Minutes segment featuring this story.

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