In another entry for the true crime genre, Netflix has dramatized the real story of serial killer Charles Cullen, who was convicted for the murder of dozens of patients under his care, with the new film The Good Nurse. Based on a true crime book of the same name by journalist Charles Graeber, the drama stars Eddie Redmayne as Cullen and Jessica Chastain as his co-worker Amy Loughren, who wore a wire to gain evidence that took Cullen down.
After Cullen’s arrest, he eventually confessed to 40 murders in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. However, investigators think he may have killed far more, estimating as many as 400.
How much of what is portrayed in the film really happened? Here’s the true story of Loughren and Cullen and where they are now.
Who is Amy Loughren from The Good Nurse and what happened to her?
Loughren worked with Cullen at Somerset Hospital in New Jersey and lived in upstate New York with her two daughters. She and Cullen were actually fairly close, working many night shifts in the intensive care unit together, which can be a bonding experience. She was approached by detectives Tim Braun and Danny Baldwin, who were investigating the deaths of a few patients who had high levels of a drug called digoxin, which affects the heart, in their systems. According to an excerpt from Graeber’s book, Loughren was the one who first understood what Cullen was doing by checking hospital records:
Amy found curious combinations of drugs that Charlie had consistently ordered. The list was long, sometimes half a dozen in a night. Amy knew these drugs to be more commonly used in a cardiac unit. Charlie was working in intensive care. His orders emptied the supply drawers.
Then, time and time again, Charlie ordered a restock from the pharmacy. His position meant he’d be the first to take the delivery. At the time, he was seen as being helpful. Now Amy wasn’t so sure.
Loughren had cardiomyopathy, a form of heart disease that could be suddenly debilitating and make it difficult to breathe. The film even shows Chastain as Loughren having an episode and being aided by Cullen. She eventually had to get a pacemaker to manage her condition, but it makes Cullen’s propensity for killing people with heart medication even more sinister to his former friend.
In December 2003, Loughren asked Cullen to meet her at a restaurant and wore a wire. She was hoping to get a confession from him, and ultimately got enough evidence for probable cause. He was subsequently arrested.
The nurse has continued to work in health, though on her website she is now a “Reiki Master, Hypnotherapist, NLP Practitioner, Meditation Instructor, DreamSculptor Practitioner, Reconnective Healer, Integrative Energy Healer, Past Life Regressionist, Crystal Language Reader, and a Medical Intuitive.”
She lives in Florida, and has been involved in press tours for the film, sharing more of her real life experience.
Who is Charles Cullen and what did he do?
Cullen’s father died when he was a baby and his mother passed in a car accident during his senior year of high school, according to The New York Times. He enlisted in the the Navy shortly after. He reportedly attempted suicide multiple times. In 1987, he graduated from nursing school and then got married. He had two daughters before his divorce in 1993.
He worked in several hospitals and nursing homes, and even then, people noticed odd behavior. In one instance he left a job over misconduct allegations when an elderly woman complained that he was not the nurse assigned to her but was continually entering her room to give her injections. In another instance, he was fired for hiding heart medicine in a container meant for needle disposal.
The medicine most associated with Cullen’s murders is called digoxin, which is used for people suffering from irregular heart beats or even heart failure. A high dose is lethal. He would inject that into patients or add lethal doses of insulin and other drugs to their harmless intravenous saline pouches. It is believed his crimes went on for 16 years before he was finally apprehended in 2003 while working at Somerset Medical Center in Somerville, New Jersey.
The death that drew definitive attention his way was when a reverend named Florian Gall died of a massive heart attack after showing clear signs of improvement. The autopsy revealed a lethal level of digoxin in his system.
Cullen’s patients in The Good Nurse, however, are all fictionalized and don’t use the names of any real-life victims. Director Tobias Lindholm explained to The Los Angeles Times: “None of the deaths we see in the film are based on real victims. 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 retraumatize anybody.”
After his arrest, Cullen told investigators that he wanted to put “very sick” patients out of their misery, and he admitted to 30-40 murders. He is currently serving 17 consecutive life sentences with no parole for 397 years.
Did Cullen and Loughren remain in touch?
Though Loughren was obviously invested in seeing Cullen arrested, they did have a friendship. After he was imprisoned, they exchanged letters and she even visited him in prison many time.
“I really wanted to know if I had harmed someone accidentally and I wanted answers and closure,” she told Glamour UK. “But…I was able to see how charismatic he was and how easy it was to be drawn in. It was a process of being able to forgive myself for not seeing it.”
Aimée Lutkin is the weekend editor at ELLE.com. Her writing has appeared in Jezebel, Glamour, Marie Claire and more. Her first book, The Lonely Hunter, will be released by Dial Press in February 2022.