The true story behind Netflix’s latest thriller, ‘The Good Nurse’

Netflix’s new thriller The Good Nurse is yet another spine-tingling watch, but what makes it ever more chilling is the fact that it’s based on a true story. What events actually transpired that inspired the film?

Netflix has been on a roll with crime thrillers these past few weeks, with Dahmer breaking the record for the most-watched show and the Indian Predator series accruing millions of views.

More recently, however, the buzz has been fuelled by Eddie Redmayne and Jessica Chastain starrer The Good Nurse. The story follows two ICU nurses – single mother Amy who has a heart-threatening condition and newbie Charlie who’s empathetic and thoughtful. Things are smooth sailing until a series of mysterious patient deaths lead to a full-scale investigation at the hospital. Directed by Tobias Lindholm, the show is a searing commentary on the flaws of the healthcare system. And at the heart of it all is one serial killer: Charles Cullen.

The true story that inspired crime-thriller The Good Nurse

Charles Cullen

As per The New York Times, Cullen’s parents passed away when he was quite young. He enlisted in the navy after high school and reportedly attempted suicide multiple times. In 1987, he graduated from nursing school. Post this – for over 16 years – he worked in several hospitals across New Jersey and Pennsylvania, tending to patients and assisting with procedures. That said, he had a history of suspicious behaviour. In one instance, an elderly woman complained that he’d enter her room to give her injections despite not being her assigned nurse. In another, he was fired for hiding heart medicine in a needle disposal container.

Amy Loughren

A single mother with a heart condition, Loughren worked as a nurse at Somerset Medical Centre, where she met Cullen. She lived in upstate New York with her two daughters. Currently, she lives in Florida and is a reiki practitioner, hypnotherapist, and meditation instructor, amongst others. She’s been involved in the press tours of the film.

Horrifying events leading to an investigation

The two shared a good relationship, working many night shifts at the intensive care unit together. Things took a suspicious turn when the deaths of a few patients at the hospital were tied to high levels of a drug named digoxin. Loughren was approached by detectives Tim Braun and Danny Baldwin – who were leading the investigation. She looked through hospital records, only to notice that the list of the combination of drugs Cullen had consistently ordered was extensive (enough to empty supply drawers and pharmacy stocks) and more suited to a cardiac unit – a cause for concern. Cullen was also the first to pick up every delivery.

Interestingly, the drug in the spotlight – digoxin – is used for people suffering from irregular heartbeats or even heart failure. High doses are, hence, fatal. Her 11-year-old daughter, reportedly, persuaded her to take her concerns to the authorities. She then worked with them – eventually inviting Cullen to a restaurant while wearing a wire and hoping to talk him into confessing. She managed to get enough evidence to have him arrested on probable cause. It’s worth noting that the death that was the most telling was when a reverend named Florian Gall was pronounced dead of a massive heart attack, after showing signs of improvement. His autopsy pointed to high levels of digoxin.

It was later revealed that Cullen would regularly inject patients with the medicine, along with high doses of insulin and other drugs through intravenous saline pouches. When asked why he’d hurt the people entrusted in his care, he stated that he wished to put “very sick” patients out of their misery, admitting to about 40 murders. He’s currently serving 11 consecutive life sentences in prison, with no parole.

The adaptation leaves out sensitive details

Despite being based on a true story, the patients in The Good Nurse are all fictionalised and the director has stressed that this was done to protect the victims from trauma. “None of the deaths we see in the film are based on real victims,” he told The Los Angeles Times before adding, “We took the liberty to change that because that basically wasn’t the point of the film, that you know exactly what happened. We did not want to retraumatise anybody.”

Screenwriter Wilson Cairns further noted that the focus was also on spotlighting the flaws of the American healthcare system “When you put profits ahead of patients, you jeopardise care and you jeopardise the system in which people can be held to account.” She added, “So [my interest] was the trifecta of the fact that I’ve never heard of it, the system that I thought is profoundly broken and this single mom superhero. What more can you ask for as a writer in a story you want to tell?”

Watch The Good Nurse on Netflix

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