Murder and Medicine: The True Story Behind The Good Nurse

Last updated: Aug 22, 2023

Within days of its release on streaming platforms, The Good Nurse grabbed the audience’s attention worldwide with its authentic portrayal of actual life events. The movie tells the story of a nurse who stealthily murders patients at various hospitals and his colleague who helps the authorities nab him.  

Instead of overdramatizing the events, it focuses more on the environment that enabled a serial k**ler to operate unhindered for several years. Let’s uncover some shocking facts about the true story. 

As Told in the Movie

The tense crime thriller stars Eddie Redmayne as America’s most prolific serial k**ler, Charles Cullen, and Jessica Chastain as ICU nurse Amy Loughren who is responsible for his detention. While dealing with the pressures of the night shifts at the intensive care units together, Amy becomes close to Charles and considers him a dear friend. 

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Source: Netflix/YouTube

He becomes an integral part of her personal and professional life until the accidental demises in the hospital they work at triggering her suspicion about him. Then, doing her own investigations into the matter, she helps the authorities solve the case and finally arrests the culprit. 

Facts Vs. Fiction

Chastain rightly describes the film as a powerful narrative about a woman who stops a long-hidden cycle of violence with compassion and humanity. Unfortunately, the Good Nurse stops short of revealing everything about the case; it leaves us with more questions than answers. Interestingly, the unresolved bits from the true story make the dramatization much more impactful. 

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Source: Netflix/YouTube

Even though director Tobias Lindholm and scriptwriter Krysty Wilson-Cairns consciously chose to show the human side of the cold-blooded murderer through his relationship with Amy, they were careful not to use it as his excuse. 

The True Story

If you have seen the movie, you are one of us who wants to know more about what truly transpired because, let’s face it, not everything can be contained in a two-hour film. Also, it’s time to find out how much of the movie was dramatized and which aspects stayed true to the real-life events. 

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Source: Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images for BFI

Let’s begin this journey by looking into the life of Charles Cullen and who he really was. Born in 1960, he was one of eight children and was raised in Essex County, New Jersey. 

Tragic Loss of His Parents

Sadly, Cullen lost both his parents early in life. His father, Edmond Cullen, passed away when he was seven months old, and he was 17 when his mother, Florence, passed away in a car accident after having an epilepsy attack. Unfortunately, the hospital mishandled her demise, leaving him traumatized for the rest of his life. 

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Source: John Wheeler/Getty Images

He was disturbed about how his mother was cremated on-site, leading him to attempt to take his own life. Some believe he had once tried to do it at nine. 

Serving in the Navy

The traumatic events during his teenage years, including being bullied, left a deep scar on the young boy; he was even briefly institutionalized before joining the US Navy in 1978. For six years, Cullen was subjected to further bullying due to his weird behavior, which all his seniors noticed. 

Source: Lewis Hunsaker/U.S. Navy/Getty Images

Once, he wore a surgeon’s scrubs and mask and sat at the mission control hub, resulting in the authorities disciplining him for such truant behavior. Clearly, he had difficulty fitting in, so they gave him a medical discharge. 

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Becoming a Certified Nurse

From his earlier behavior in the Navy, it was evident Cullen was drawn to the medical profession. So, it wasn’t surprising when he studied Nursing at Montclair’s Mountainside Hospital and even entered the profession as the president of his class, which was no small feat for a young man with a traumatic past. 

Source: Still Watching Netflix/YouTube

Cullen entered into a relationship with Adrienne Taub in 1987 and married her the same year. Professionally, everything seemed to go well, but his personal life was in shambles. After fathering two adorable kids, you’d think he settled down, but things were murkier than ever. 

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As a Disturbed Family Man

Cullen’s turbulent relationship with his wife had darker reasons lurking behind it. None of them were shown in the movie, where he was seen as divorced and prohibited from seeing his children. In reality, his wife believed him to be unstable and extremely dangerous. 

Source: Jasmin Merdan/Getty Images

She claimed he tried to poison people by mixing lighter fluid with the drinks. The worst accusation was that he was cruel to his kids and family pets; he had a restraining order slapped on him in 1993. He denied each one of these accusations. 

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The Dark Side of Him

Among all the mayhem of his personal relationships, it was business as usual for him at the hospital he worked at. He began his professional journey at the burns unit of Saint Barnabas Medical Center in Essex County, where he started his k**ling spree. 

Source: Netflix / Youtube

All this while he was indulging in the cold-blooded manslaughters of the patients by administering fatal drugs. The worst part of the scenario was that it went undetected for so many years, during which he is believed to have killed over 400 unsuspecting patients during his career spanning 16 years. 

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The Cursed Lottery System

One of the main reasons his crime went unnoticed for several years was because of how he carried out his murders. Every week, he’d spike up at least five IV bags with fatal medications; whoever got them had their fates decided for them. It was a twisted and dreadful lottery system he had meticulously designed so the murders couldn’t be traced back to him. 

Source: Matt May / wikicommons

Even though the movie showed all these, it changed how the victims and their stories were presented in The Good Nurse.

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Conscious Decision by the Director

Director Tobias and screenwriter Krysty were clear about one thing; they did not want to show anything in their movie that would reopen the wounds of the victims’ families. Instead, in order to preserve the true horror of the actual life events, they chose to dramatize the patient records.  

Source: Montclair Film / wikicommons

This conscious and thoughtful decision was made purely to keep the families’ loved ones from suffering all over again. They considered it their moral responsibility, which worked well for the film by focussing on the issues of the negligent healthcare system in the country. 

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The Flawed Medical Establishments

It’s another matter altogether that even if the creative team wanted to use the real names and stories of the victims, they couldn’t have done so without breaching some contracts. A little thing called NDAs or the Non-Disclosure Agreements would have stopped them cold. 

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Most of the Victims’ families signed the NDA with the medical establishments that Cullen worked at, and he had worked at nine of them until justice was served in 2003. His last posting was at Somerset Medical Center’s critical care unit. 

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Cullen's Friendship With Amy

If you have seen The Good Nurse, you’d know their friendship was at the crux of the story. While working at Somerset Medical Center, Cullen met fellow nurse Amy Loughren and befriended her during their shared night shifts at the hospital. 

Source: Bobby Bank/WireImage/Getty Images

As someone who admires those smarter than her, Amy found him highly knowledgeable about medicines and critical care. She also came to rely on him because her heart condition, called Cardiomyopathy, prevented proper blood flow from the organ to the body. 

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Amy's Reliance on Him

Amy was in a tricky situation concerning her health; she desperately needed to keep it hidden from the hospital authorities, at least for a few months, until she gained access to medical insurance. Since she also struggled to perform her duties, Cullen offered to cover for her and chose to keep her secret. 

Source: Netflix/YouTube

The movie differs from real life in the way this was depicted. While on-screen, Amy needed a heart transplant; in reality, she managed with a pacemaker and medications. She came to rely on him a great deal, forging a strong bond. 

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Cullen and Amy's Close Relationship

According to Angels of D**th author Emily Webb, everything else about the movie’s interpretation of Nurse Amy and her relationship with Cullen, except for the dramatic addition to her health condition and the fact that an Oscar-award-winning actress played it, has stayed true to the real-life events. This includes her family life with her two daughters. 

Source: Amy Loughren/Instagram

It has also truthfully represented Cullen and Amy, a single mother’s purely platonic relationship, although his familiarity with her kids may not be to the extent depicted in the crime thriller. 

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A Patient Who Survived

The events that led to his arrest happened at the Somerset Medical Center, where Cullen continued his killing spree besides developing a close friendship with Amy. Several patients at the hospital fell victim to this cold-hearted method of murder, but luckily, one escaped. 

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His usual dispatch of fatal medicines to random patients failed when one of them, Philip Gregor, made it alive despite being administered with the fateful IV bag. As a result, the lucky patient got to live out the remaining months of his life. 

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The Beginning of His End

Too many patients unexpectedly passed away at Somerset Medical Center in a short time, raising the alarm among the authorities. They knew something was amiss but couldn’t exactly figure out why, but was it enough for them to involve the police?

Source: Netflix / Youtube

When did the horrifying situation finally grab the attention of the external authorities? So many events unfolded in quick succession once the cat was out of the bag. At some point, Amy Loughren got dragged into the mess and played a pivotal role in getting her colleague nabbed by the authorities. 

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Creative Liberties

Even though the film wasn’t a heavily fictionalized version of the real-life occurrences, it took certain creative liberties to better represent the gruesome nature of the murders. Amy Loughren was consulted during the production process to make The Good Nurse as authentic as possible. 

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After all, the movie adaptation puts Amy, portrayed brilliantly by Jessica Chastain, at the heart and center of the story. Thanks to the incredible cast and crew, the film turned out to be a thought-provoking interpretation of the true events. 

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As Dramatized in the Movie

In the on-screen version of the real-life tale, the events unfold at the Parkfield Memorial Hospital, where the accidental demise of an elderly patient alerts the internal authorities to take necessary action. As a result, real-life detectives Tim Braun and Danny Baldwin, portrayed by Noah Emmerich and Nnamdi Asomugha, begin the investigation. 

Source: Netflix/YouTube

Unfortunately, the duo was met with resistance from the hospital authorities. They can whittle out information that points to Charles Cullen as their primary suspect. Yet, the chances of catching him look slim due to his uncooperative employers until nurse Loughren finds a way. 

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From Defending Cullen to Suspecting Him

The first time Braun and Danny questioned Amy Loughren, she quickly defended Cullen and his professionalism with sincere admiration for her colleague. Then, as time passed and more matters came to light, she did a little investigation on her own by speaking to his former colleague, who cleared a few things that also put him under suspicion. 

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Convinced that her friend wasn’t the kind-hearted nurse she believed him to be, she decided to help the detectives get the requisite proof to identify him as the serial assassin responsible for countless manslaughters. 

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The Shocking Truth

It wasn’t long before all the substantial evidence stacked against Amy’s dear friend and coworker Charles Cullen. For a while, she felt guilty for not noticing him as a suspect much earlier. Still, she was within her rights to chalk it down to the intense pressure each medical staff was under in the critical care center. 

Source: Netflix/YouTube

Usually, circumstances demand split-second decisions, and everyone learns to trust one another in those dire circumstances. Moreover, Amy saw Cullen as a good nurse who made the right decision for the patient’s benefit. 

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In Search of Irrefutable Evidence

Even with all the evidence gathered by the detectives with the help of Amy Loughren, the police still needed one irrefutable proof of his lethal activities to put him behind bars for good. After Cullen gets fired from his job, the detectives convince her to call him for a social meeting, but she fails to get his confession. 

Source: IAEA Imagebank / wikicommons

Since they had enough evidence to detain him for 48 hours, Cullen got pulled up for further intense interrogation. As expected, it did not go well, and the officers didn’t get anything substantial out of him. 

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The Final Confession

Ultimately, Amy had to get her colleague to confess on record. The climactic confession scene in which she drapes her sweater over his cold shoulders did happen. This is where the movie adaptation perfectly encapsulates the heart-to-heart she had in real life with Charles Cullen. 

Source: Netflix / Youtube

In the movie, it’s a throwback to the first time he did the same to her when she was suffering from one of the debilitating symptoms of her heart condition. The friendly exchange slowly revealed his darker side leading to a final confession of his murders. 

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The Definitive End of Cullen's Crimes

After 16 years of his murderous executions going undetected, Cullen’s crimes ended when he was put behind bars and underwent trial for several manslaughters. He eventually pled guilty to 13 serial assassination and two counts of attempted homicide but was convicted of 29 cold-blooded k**lings. 

Source: John Wheeler/Getty Images

In reality, Cullen took a plea bargain to cooperate with the authorities, thereby escaping the d**th penalty. As shown in post-credits, he was sentenced to 18 consecutive life sentences and was not eligible for a parole hearing until 2403. 

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The Good Nurse, Amy Loughren

Media caught up with Amy Loughren about how she felt about the whole ordeal and, in particular, was curious about how she felt after. She was candid in her response to The Guardian, citing that her integrity was intact despite having been close to someone who concealed his darker side. 

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Her last meeting with her former friend, who turned out to be one of America’s most prolific serial k**lers, was during his final confession to her while in the custody of the police. Their friendship severed post that once he came to know of her role in his detention. 

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He Raised Many Suspicions

The movie may have narrowed the scope of the real-life events by focusing only on Amy Loughren and her contribution to catching the serial k**ler. Still, others noticed the accidental demises, and some even suspected Charles Cullen. One medical professional who got the short end of the stick due to his crimes was Kimberly Pepe. 

Source: Gabrielle Allen/YouTube

In the late 1990s, she was held responsible for a patient’s sudden demise due to insulin overdose, Cullen’s MO. When she had lost her job because of it, she pointed her fingers at him, but nothing came of it. 

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Failed Investigations by Institutions

Whenever Cullen was suspected due to the increasing number of coding accidents in critical care units, the internal investigations that typically lasted a few months produced no results. So he was either let go, or his misdemeanors brushed under the carpet, never to be raised again. 

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If there were any tacit understandings between the hospital management and Cullen, no one was aware. The glaring negligence of the entire healthcare system was made painfully public when he got apprehended for offenses committed for nearly two decades. 

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What Motivated Cullen to Annihilate?

It’s a question on everyone’s mind, but unfortunately, neither the movie nor the real-life events answered that burning curiosity. For many years, Cullen did not reveal his reasons for going on a compulsive cold-blooded k**ling spree. 

Source: Tomasz Sienicki / wikicommons

Rumors abound that it was mercy k**lings to relieve the patients of a lifetime of pain. Another twisted logic was that Cullen blamed his outrageous acts on the medical system’s failure to stop him. His becoming a mass assassin highlighted the broken mechanisms of his country’s healthcare industry. 

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Charles Graeber's The Good Nurse

Both theories were rubbished in no uncertain terms by Charles Graeber, the author of the crime book The Good Nurse, published in 2013, a decade after Cullen’s arrest. As a man who had a chance to speak with the criminal himself, he knew the mind of the murderer well enough to comment on his motives. 

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According to Graeber, Cullen knew precisely what he was doing the entire time and did what he wanted without remorse. The perpetrator was only concerned about his needs and did not care for people’s feelings. 

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The Man Behind the Multiple Murders

The movie The Good Nurse intentionally or unintentionally may have given the audience a rare glimpse into the human and warmer side of Charles Cullen. He was definitely portrayed as an empathetic person who related to Amy’s plight. That is the cinema for you! It certainly made us more invested in the story. 

Source: AP Archive/YouTube

In reality, Cullen proved to someone with little mercy, who did as he pleased without consideration for others. Both the mediums reiterated his disturbed mental state, giving us an idea about the traumatic incidents in his young life that might have shaped him as a criminal.

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