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Nursing Nightmares: Horror Stories from the Front Lines (and How to Make Nurse-Patient Interactions a Treat)

Jane Nam
Updated October 20, 2023
Edited by
    Nurses are famed for their resilience and humor. Try on a few patient horror stories, then find out how to foster better nurse-patient interaction.
    Nurse standing in dark hospital roomCredit: Getty Images
    • NurseJournal spoke with nurses to gather real-life patient “horror stories” and advice for optimizing nurse-patient interactions.
    • Treating nurses well is essential for fostering a supportive and effective healthcare environment.
    • While gifts are a great way to show gratitude, they can also be problematic depending on the nature of the gift.

    It’s a good thing many nurses have a healthy sense of humor.

    It’s just one component of the profession’s trademark resilience, and it keeps nurses going even in the face of adversity, burnout, threat of harm, or just a good old-fashioned bad day.

    Nurses also have a chance each day to lead by example. When you’re a nurse, any moment can be a teachable moment. NurseJournal recently took to social media to gather real-life patient “horror stories” and tips for how nurses and patients can work together to make interactions a treat for all parties involved.

    Nurses Share Their Patient “Horror Stories”

    Nurse horror stories run the gamut, from the intense to the intensely silly. It’s all in a day’s work on the front lines of healthcare in America.

    One nurse details the problem she had with a patient family member who had an odd sense of priorities.

    “Once I called a rapid response on a patient who had seven gunshot wounds to his torso. His sister called me urgently out of the room, I thought, to tell me something pertinent to his care. She proceeded to pull me down the hallway to show me a spare stretcher and tell me off about how dusty it was.”

    Abby McCcoy, RN, BSN

    Another story outlines the odd requests patients often make to their nurses — everything from performing a song to giving a pedicure:

    “When I was a bedside nurse, I was asked for nearly everything under the sun, from a chandelier to a pedicure to singing opera and performing dance moves. I didn’t mind the odd requests, and I usually got a good chuckle from them. Even though I can’t say that I could fulfill them all (singing is not my thing), the patients’ health and safety were always taken care of!”

    Cristina Campbell, RN, BSN

    As the frontline workers of hospitals, nurses often face the brunt of a patient’s rage. In this example, a nurse explains a situation in which she had to leave due to the threat to her safety:

    “I had a home health patient who was increasingly angry at his surgeon because his knee wasn’t improving. Rural guy, lived out in the middle of nowhere. The last time I showed up, I walked in, and he had multiple guns lying on his coffee table, and he was cleaning them. He was also exhibiting increasing agitation and acting a bit manic. He started immediately in a rage when I asked how he was doing. I told him ‘I brought in the wrong bag!’ and excused myself and left.”

    Kristin Ferguson, RN

    Lastly, there will be patients who refuse help or simply create a scene—sometimes a rather intense scene—for attention or another personal reason:

    “I had a patient and his spouse threaten to sue me and my coworkers because they wanted to appeal [for] discharge, and the attending denied it. We had to call security due to his agitation. The spouse recorded the whole situation and told her viewers ‘to beware of this hospital and their staff.’ I thought I was being pranked. Within seconds, the patient threw himself on the floor face first, screaming, ‘Help me, help me.’ I called a rapid response, the team assessed the patient, and security escorted him out of the building. A few weeks later, I was contacted by risk management to make a statement because they were suing, and my name was on the list. Luckily, nothing came out of it, but it was scary.”

    Kaneesha Allen, RN, BSN

    How to Be Nice to Your Nurse

    How can we avoid being a “bad patient” or family member? What can nurses do to improve their own experiences? In this section, discover how you can treat nurses nicely so they can best perform their — very important — jobs.

    Be An Ally

    Nurses work hard and deserve the support of their patients, community, and personal networks.

    “A piece of constructive advice I give my non-nurse friends is straightforward. I may work three days a week, but those shifts are usually the most challenging of my life. Saying comments such as ‘you make more than enough money,’ ‘you only work three days a week,’ or ‘it’s because you work med-surg’ are insulting. Nursing gets harder each year, and I need support at the end of the day.”

    Kaneesha Allen, RN, BSN

    Tell the Truth

    One study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal showed that 60-80% of Americans were not forthcoming with their care providers about information that could be relevant to their health. Sometimes, these omissions included not disclosing their unhealthy diets or lack of exercise due to embarrassment.

    Remember that your nurse wants to be your healthcare advocate. Giving them the right information is critical to helping them make the best decisions on your behalf.

    Respect Their Time

    Healthcare is based on the order of severity and urgency of patients’ needs. While it’s important to voice your demands, respecting a nurse’s time and keeping requests to a minimum is just as important. Use call buttons responsibly and be mindful of a nurse’s time constraints.

    “If you’re in the hospital, try to consolidate your requests when the nurse asks if you need anything (versus remembering one thing you need each time he/she comes in).”

    Cristina Campbell, RN, BSN

    Don’t Use Your Nurse as a Punching Bag

    The healthcare system can be frustrating to navigate. Don’t direct your frustration at your nurse without cause. Misplaced anger or frustration runs the risk of alienating one of the key members of your care team.

    Remember that you and your nurse are working toward the same goals. Rather than be angry, express your concerns constructively.

    Respect the Expertise of Nurses

    While you should always feel comfortable asking questions, respecting your nurse’s expertise is important. Part of this respect includes following instructions and guidelines.

    Nurses are highly trained and sophisticated healers, with intimate knowledge of the latest techniques in modern medicine. Reducing them to stereotypes has a damaging effect.

    “I was recently talking to a friend I hadn’t seen in over 20 years. We were catching up on a group chat. I mentioned I was a nurse, and he immediately sent a picture of Jessica Rabbit. I knew he was kidding, but after everything we’ve been through with the pandemic, I thought, ‘Wow, that’s the first thing that comes to mind?’

    Tara Nadia Roscoe, RN

    Show Gratitude

    Giving your nurse a gift can be a great way to express your gratitude. According to Jen Chung, a nurse practitioner based in Atlanta, GA, nurses “go nuts” for alcohol.

    (Check out NurseJournal’s comprehensive nurse gift guide for a host of great ideas.)

    Below are other gift ideas broken down by gift type.

    Self-Care Gifts

    • Scrunchies
    • Chapstick
    • Hand lotions
    • Sheet face masks

    Homemade Gifts

    “I have an ornament that was given to me by a patient, and that was really sweet and thoughtful. I think about that family every year I put it up,” says Abby Johnston, a nurse also based in Atlanta, Georgia.

    Practical Gifts

    • Highlighters
    • Sheet face masks
    • Snack basket
    • Candy
    • Donuts
    • Personalized Badge Reel or Stethoscope
    • Mug, Water Bottle

    Gifts That Nurses Cannot Accept

    Accepting some gifts, such as large sums of cash or extravagant gifts, can be considered inappropriate.

    In another peer-reviewed article, the author recommends that healthcare providers consider several factors before accepting or refusing a gift from a patient:

    • Is the gift given to secure preferential treatment?
    • Is the gift professional?
    • Is the gift extravagant or excessively valuable?
    • What is the timing of the gift? Is it before an upcoming procedure? Or after treatment and an expression of gratitude?

    Showing gratitude ultimately does not need to be an overly complex endeavor — and sometimes just takes a simple “thank-you.” Turning horror stories into a sweet experience is often a matter of simple courtesy, and in remembering that nurses are there to help.

    “If you’ve had great care from a nurse, don’t hesitate to let the nurse manager know,” Campbell says. “Nurses are often blamed for everything but rarely recognized for a job well done.”