Nurses Onscreen

The Good Nurse

A tense thriller about a real-life nurse serial killer

Jessica Chastain and Eddie Redmayne from a scene in The Good Nurse sitting on the ground talking

In this Netflix thriller, actress Jessica Chastain plays Amy Loughren, a recently-hired critical care nurse on the night shift at Parkfield Memorial Hospital in New Jersey. Amy is a single mom with two small children and some serious health issues — she suffers from cardiomyopathy, which she’s trying to keep secret from the administration until she becomes eligible for medical coverage.

When an experienced nurse named Charlie Cullen (Eddie Redmayne) joins the unit, Amy makes it her job to orient him and help him feel welcome. Soft-spoken and friendly, Charlie offers to take some of the stress off her at work. He also agrees to keep her condition a secret, and even ingratiates himself with her children. Before long, he becomes her good friend.

After one of their elderly patients dies, Amy discovers irregularities in the patient’s bloodwork, indicating that she had received insulin, although she was not diabetic. Soon, another patient dies in a similar manner.

Despite the hospital’s efforts to downplay the deaths, Amy becomes suspicious about Charlie. She launches her own investigation and learns that the unit he had worked on at a previous hospital also suffered a rash of mysterious deaths.

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Realizing that her friend may have been responsible, Amy goes to the state police. In the end, it’s Amy’s courage and quiet human compassion that bring the horrifying truth to light.

A Murderous Spree With Untold Victims

If this plot sounds familiar, it’s because you may have heard about these events on the news almost 20 years ago, or read the 2013 book by Charles Graeber on which this movie is based. [Read our Book Club review.] It’s a scary story, and what’s even more terrifying for me is the fact that it happened at some of the well-known hospitals in my area.

Ultimately, Cullen confessed to 29 murders, although he may have been responsible for hundreds more. It is thought that he might be the most prolific serial killer in the United States.

The film shows the role that multiple hospitals played in allowing this serial killer to continue his murderous spree. Hospital officials were reluctant to involve the police even after suspecting foul play, likely because they worried about liability and financial consequences. Loughren stands out as a true medical hero for nearly single-handedly stopping Cullen.

RN Career Events

Eddie Redmayne does a good job of making Cullen believable as well as scary. Seemingly quiet, funny and gentle, he also deliberately and randomly murdered hospital patients for no reason that he was ever able to explain.

However, the film presents only the time Cullen spent at his last hospital with Loughren, and the events leading to his arrest. The Charles Graeber book looks at Cullen’s entire 16-year nursing career, which gives the reader a broader view of his dysfunctional relationships and early clues to the rage that may have led to his crimes.

Researching the Roles

Actors Redmayne and Chastain were sent to “nursing school” for two weeks to add to the authenticity of the film. Both have admitted they had no idea what a difficult and challenging job nursing is, and were terrified to realize all the responsibility it calls for.

In an interview on “CBS Mornings,” the real Amy Loughren said that all nurses save patients, and that nurses make all the difference in hospital stays. I can’t think of many examples more dramatic than hers.

The events of the Cullen case have been covered at length in books and magazine articles. There’s also a documentary, Catching the Killer Nurse, released on Netflix about two weeks after The Good Nurse. However, the way the tension slowly builds makes The Good Nurse a nail-biter. I hope people don’t rethink or postpone having elective surgery after watching this frightening film!

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.

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