Nursing Book Club

The Good Nurse: A True Story of Medicine, Madness and Murder by Charles Graeber

A horrifying tale of a nurse turned serial killer, which Stephen King called the best book of the year

As soon as I picked up The Good Nurse, I knew I’d be in for a roller coaster ride. The paperback edition of a New York Times bestseller first published in 2013, it had a sensational cover photo and a blurb from Stephen King proclaiming it the “best book of the year.” It seemed perfect for a weekend at the beach, and I couldn’t wait to start.

First, let’s be clear that the title of this book is purely ironic. Charles Cullen could have been a good nurse, but he was a very, very bad person — the kind of person whose crimes make headlines and the national news. The media called him “the Angel of Death.”

I had actually remembered seeing this story in the news years ago and was looking forward to clarification of several points. The case was almost too shocking to believe: Cullen, who was a nurse from 1987 to 2003, had deliberately killed dozens — maybe hundreds — of his patients. These were not simply medical errors or even negligence.

Cullen methodically selected his victims by reading their medical charts and then gave them lethal doses of medication, which he learned to obtain in ways that were hard to detect. (In one hospital where he worked, Cullen found he could access deadly drugs by requesting innocuous ones stored in the same drawers.)

The Zhytomyr Hospital Challenge

Every Donation Helps!

Our Working Nurse community is coming together to puchase medical equipment for a war-ravaged hospital in Ukraine.

Learn More and Donate

Hiding in Plain Sight

We don’t know exactly how many patients Cullen killed. During his initial police interrogation, he claimed to have committed at least 40 murders. Author Charles Graeber believes there may have been hundreds. Why? Cullen’s own account of his motives changes from interview to interview. Sometimes, he claims he wanted to spare patients from suffering, but other times, he says the killings were impulsive or that he doesn’t remember.

Cullen has said he had a bad childhood, an unhappy marriage (his wife divorced him in 1993) and a history of mental health problems, but so do many people who are not murderers. All I know for certain is that this guy was a very bad person who cunningly planned his killings and then managed to talk his way out of trouble over and over again.

Warnings Ignored

Almost as scary as Cullen’s crimes is how he was able to get away with them for so long. He changed jobs countless times, often leaving under a cloud of suspicion, but he continued to receive neutral references from his employers. Surprisingly, even a criminal conviction in 1993 for stalking and trespassing didn’t seem to hurt his hireability.

Get the Friday Newsletter

Lively career advice, nursing news and the latest RN job openings delivered to your inbox every week. Feel inspired by your work.

View Sample

Many of Cullen’s colleagues didn’t really trust him, didn’t want to work with him and came to suspect him of involvement in patient deaths. Although his fellow nurses reported these suspicions to management, the hospitals preferred to ask Cullen to quietly resign rather than risk scandal and legal liability.

It wasn’t until a fellow nurse went directly to the police in 2003 that Cullen was actually arrested and charged with murdering or attempting to murder patients. He later pleaded guilty to a total of 22 counts of murder and is now serving multiple life sentences.

This isn’t a story for the squeamish, but if, like me, you are a fan of true crime stories, this is a great weekend read that raises many challenging questions about how hospitals can or should respond when the unthinkable happens.

The Good Nurse: A True Story of Medicine, Madness and Murder by Charles Graeber (Grand Central Publishing, 2017).

Christine Contillo, RN, BSN, PHN, is a public health nurse with more than 40 years of experience, ranging from infants to geriatrics. She enjoys volunteering for medical missions.

In this Article: ,

Latest Articles

Experience the Digital Flip Mag

Flip through the pages of the latest Working Nurse magazine on your device.