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‘The Good Nurse’ tells tale of medicine and madness

The Good Nurse is a true non-fiction book. It follows the career of a killer who has (at least) a possible 300 deaths to his credit.

His name is Charles Cullen. He is a handsome man, a trained nurse, the product of a “miserable childhood” and acknowledged as a “late-life mistake,” his eight siblings having already left home.

His mother shielded him from various rough goings-on until she was killed in a car crash. There followed one of Charlie’s many attempts at suicide – though he admits to a friend, much later on, that he knew they wouldn’t succeed.

He was the only male nursing student at Mountainside Hospital School of Nursing in Montclair, N.J., becoming president of his class. He married Adrienne, also a nurse, six months after she returned from a broken affair. He easily converted to Judaism.

They returned a day early from Niagara Falls so he cold start his job in the burn unit at a hospital in Livingston, N.J. – the only certified burn unit in New Jersey. His job: clear, scrape and work away the charred skin.

There begran to be unauthorized insulin-caused crashes there, which mystifed the authorities. Though Cullen was suspected, authorities had no way of proving it. When Cullen left, the insulin deaths stopped.

At home, Charles, a drinker, lived in the basement. One day, a close neighbor found that her dog, always welcome in the Cullens’ house, had been poisoned.

Meanwhile, he was hired by another hospital and told his wife he would be moving out. Leaving his wife, he moved in with Cathy and again attempted suicide.

At his new hospital, Charlie was suspected of dispensing the lethal drug dobutamine. Investigations followed and though more patients died; the hospital did not care to make their investigation public and simply fined him. “Investigation closed,” they said, after eight months of said investigation. Seven patients had, in fact, been poisoned.

Charles continued to get jobs – clearly no hospital wanted to admit to the deaths on his watch; no smoking gun was evident – so it was “case closed,” “case closed” while each hospital clearly wanted nothing more to do with him.

Now the police were involved, but one of the problems was that hospital records are kept for only 30 days, so police had a hard time getting evidence. When people die in hospital and they are buried, no records are kept after 30 days of those burials either. It was thus hard to collect the history of his 16 years at nine hospitals.

Charles had one friend, a fellow nurse, who was fond of him. When she learned of the evidence – proof of doses and doses of the lethal drug digoxin, she agreed to wear a mic at lunch with him, pushing for some kind of admission, a partial one of which she got.

On her evidence he was booked – a grisly scene. At his twelve-hour interrogation, he cried. In jail, he learned of a request for a kidney and begged to be allowed to give his. He was finally allowed, and after that, he disappeared into the jail.

This is a broad summary of actual events in the book. I found it fascinating that the author, Charles Graeber, could trace these events so closely during the six years of research and interviews – and that his careful fact-finding could possibly represent other, similar situations which we know nothing about.

One significant element of the book is the number of times mistakes are made or assumed (and recorded) in hospitals. An uneasy feeling comes over one as that is so matter-of-factly reported in this book. No motives are discussed – merely reports on Charles’ single-minded, carefully prepared murders.

The point of view is objective – never from Charles’ point of view, but it was clear he was an intelligent and careful man who went about his killings in an intelligent, careful manner. He became the most prolific killer in American history, according to the author.

The author is a prolific magazine writer, and his writing here is straight-forward and rather prosaic. The facts he reports, however, are so dramatic, it hardly matters that he does not report them dramatically.

Book info:
The Good Nurse
By Charles Graeber
Hachette Book Group, $26.99

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Posted by on June 27, 2013. Filed under Arts and Entertainment,Book Reviews,Columns,Opinion. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry
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