The Good Nurse

By Charles Graeber

Hadn’t I already read this book? Seventeen years ago? Only I thought it was called Blind Eye back then, and had been by James B. Stewart.

Turns out my memory was correct. Here’s some of what I said in my review of Blind Eye. Change the names and it all fits for The Good Nurse:

What Stewart argues is that a buck-passing medical system shares a large part of the blame for Swango’s crimes. Poweful people, in positions of trust, routinely ignored clear evidence of danger and exposed the most vulnerable members of our society to mortal risk.

In fact, even after Swango’s apprehension, the Ohio State administration continued to stonewall both press and prosecutors. Nor was federal legislation in these matters any help. A national data bank set up in 1990 to monitor incompetent and criminal physicians has been a complete failure due to the medical profession’s almost total refusal to report on itself.

“The loyalty among physicians,” Stewart concludes, “makes police officers’ famous ‘blue wall of silence’ seem porous by comparison.”

Instead of the deadly doctor Michael Swango, Charles Graeber tells the story of “angel of death” Charlie Cullen. Nurse Cullen’s methods were much the same, but his record even worse. Neither killer’s casualty list can be exactly determined, but whereas Swango may have killed 60 people, Cullen’s victims are thought to be in the hundreds.

The real scandal in both cases is also the same: powerful institutions (hospitals and the medical establishment) that did everything possible to cover their butts by covering for the killers. At the end of my Blind Eye review I concluded that such a shameful record “would normally demand some kind of institutional response. Normally, but in this case unlikely. Given the power of the establishment, it will be easier to turn a blind eye.” As expected, that is what happened. Some minor legislation was passed in the wake of Cullen’s case, but nothing meaningful. It’s truly tragic, but we all know what matters here and it’s not the protection of innocent lives.

Graeber’s book has flaws. There may be no explaining a mind like Charlie Cullen’s but more of an effort could have been made in this regard. I would have even taken pure speculation as to what made him tick. Then the book’s second half indulges the point of view of the confidential informer too much. A greater distance should have been maintained. Finally, far too much important information that should be part of the main narrative has been punted into lengthy and discursive endnotes. After a couple of chapters I got tired of constantly flipping to the back of the book to read these and just gave up.

So in many ways this is a sequel to a better book, but it underlines a still very important message. In a showdown between your life and other people’s careers or institutional self-preservation, you’re always going to lose.

Review first published online May 12, 2016.

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