Working in a hospital can be a place where one can truly make a meaningful difference in the world, but it can also be a job that is very trying and challenging.
For so many nurses all over the world, seeing people at their worst is just an expected part of their daily life. Whether it’s seeing something ridiculous, something sad, or just something unique and unexpected, there are definitely moments in every nurse’s career that are impossible to forget—and more often than not, it’s for a less than enjoyable reason.
Here are 42 stories of the worst experiences nurses have ever had while on the job.
1. Money Makes the World Go Round
A homeless guy came to our hospital with an abdominal abscess (basically a hole in his abdomen). We were trying to clean his wound and assess the damage. When we reached inside his wound, we made the weirdest discovery. We started finding money. He nonchalantly stated that he kept his money tucked in there, to protect it from being stolen.
2. Ready, Aim, Fire!
I’ve seen some nasty stuff. On my first night shift, a guy peed on my face and shoulder. He almost got it on my mouth and lips but I saw it coming and turned. He was confused, unsteady, and he climbed out of bed, actively urinating all over the floor. I grabbed a urinal and held him up and got him pointed in the urinal. Everything went great until he reaches down and grabs his thing. Then he points it up and out of the urinal, directly at my face.
3. Sock It To Me
I was taking care of a nice older gentleman patient who was tachycardic, but all his labs were normal. He seemed like he took fairly good care of himself. He was a little disheveled but he dressed nicely and had nice shoes. We initially couldn’t find anything wrong with him, but he had a peculiar odor to him that seasoned nurses would get suspicious of.
I asked him if he had any infections on his body that he knew of, and he said “no”, but I wanted to do a thorough check. We took off all his clothes, and he was fine, until I got down to his feet. He was wearing an old pair of socks, and as I peeled them down, the skin around his foot literally came off with the sock. I was essentially degloving his foot.
It was so vile, I couldn’t even get down more than a couple inches. It was raw flesh under those socks. The wound odor was so strong, I knew then that his feet were the source. He probably hadn’t changed his socks in several months. He ended up being admitted and given lots of antibiotics and wound care. The memory of pulling down his socks will haunt me forever.
4. Tragic Circumstances
A 17-year-old kid shot himself in the face. He was left with no nose, no mouth, no jaw, but everything else was totally intact. Incredibly sad eyes. He lived, but the nightmare was just beginning. He died by suicide about a year later.
5. A Little Too Thrifty for His Own Good
A prisoner patient got mad at his cellmate. So mad that he took a razor blade to his own scrotum. He decided to turn his ensuing cut into a kangaroo pouch and tried to put a travel sized toothbrush into the cut. To top it off, he slammed two pencils up his urethra. Mental health is a real issue. Definitely my worst case, but almost certainly worse for him than me.
6. Lost in Uncharted Territory
Once I got my arm stuck between a patient’s butt cheeks while inserting a fecal management system for c-diff management. I weighed in at about 115 at the time. He was 400+. He clenched and was screaming at me to get out of his butt. Happened years ago and still gets brought up regularly at the hospital where I work.
One time I had a patient fresh out of open heart surgery try to escape through the toilet. He was having DTs and withdrawals from a variety of street drugs. Found him knee-deep in the toilet trying to swim out because he “loves the smack.” Four security guards couldn’t hold him, even with chest tubes, midsternal incision, foley, and the whole works. Don’t do drugs kids, but if you do, please tell us which ones you’ve done!
8. The Worst Thing a Guy Can Ever Imagine…
A couple years ago, I took care of a long haul trucker who developed a very unfortunate wound. It was on the underside of his scrotum. Basically, the vibration of the truck seat wore away at the area, and over time, he developed an infected ulcer. As you can imagine, this makes for a very fragile situation. One day we were helping him out of bed when his scrotum ruptured wide open, pus splattered everywhere, and his testicles flopped out. A bad day for all involved.
9. Sinks Exist for a Reason
There was the old man that would poop himself, dig his fingers into his behind, and then proceed to put his poopy fingers in his mouth and up his nose.
10. Bon Appetit!
I took care of a patient that was morbidly obese and could not walk due to her weight. When she was first brought in, we heard a chilling rumor. Apparently, the rotting remnants of a half-eaten ham and cheese sandwich was found in one of her fat folds.
11. Choices Have Consequences, People!
I’ve seen a cancerous breast tumor that was larger than a softball. Lady was aware of the lump but “didn’t believe in modern medicine.” She was choosing to treat it with herbs and supplements. Eventually the tumor grew so large that it was attached to her ribs and could not be operated on. She eventually came into the hospital when she started to bleed to death as the tumor had split open.
12. A Story That’s Full of Holes (Unfortunately)
Here is a pretty awful case that is definitely up there in the category of “unfortunate souls.” This poor lady was constantly coming in with sepsis (blood infection). She had abdominal surgery and developed a fistula, which is basically a hole where there shouldn’t be one. Basically, the first one that happened was because her intestines stuck together and a hole formed through the walls of them.
Every time they tried to fix them, she developed more. She had holes throughout her intestines, so she had a colostomy bag, but she also had developed numerous fistulas all over her abdomen from where her intestines had stuck to the inside wall of her abdomen and formed holes all the way through her skin. So she basically had a bunch of holes all over her abdomen that just leaked stool everywhere.
We had an extensive abdominal dressing regimen, where we actually put colostomy bags over a lot of the holes. The whole deal took two nurses about an hour to an hour and a half. No one wanted her twice because she was really needy, whiny, and mean, plus she was on MRSA precautions, so you had to gown up every time you went into her room. We changed her dressing two or three times per shift because no matter how well you did it, stool would leak onto her fragile skin and erode it further.
It was awful, and even though she was a really difficult patient, we obviously felt bad for her.
I’ve seen multiple patients come in with MAGGOTS in their festering wounds… How does a maggot infestation in your body go unnoticed?
14. Well This Really Sucks
I had a patient with an open fasciotomy wound, running from hip to knee, that had a wound vac connected to the wound. This is basically a wound dressing that creates a seal with a small tube running to a small vacuum device. Wound vacs apply negative pressure to the wound and also drain anything coming out of the wound. The wound had developed MRSA which is one of the worst bacterial infections you can develop.
Well Mr. Wound Vac kept having issues with his wound vac and it would lose its seal. I came into the room one evening to discover that the patient had disconnected the tubing of the wound vac and was sucking on the end of the tubing that ran out of the wound. The line had pinkish yellow MRSA drainage that was coming out of the tube.
I was so shocked I didn’t even know what to say other than “ummm, don’t do that.” I then had to explain to him why. I passed the story of this incident along to the next shift’s nurse. That nurse exclaimed “I saw him do that too! I tried telling him not to mess with it.”
15. Rescue Mission
I did a short stint in mental health. Had an 18-ish-year-old come in. She had been found in the fetal position covered in feces and naked in her bedroom by police. She’d basically been locked in there by her parents for years (most of her life). She kept asking for her mum because she didn’t know how to do anything. Her mother was still trying to control her from prison.
16. Serious Amnesia
One memorable case was a pedophile that was found wandering around with advanced dementia and brought to hospital. He had to have one-on-one care all the time because he kept harassing the nurses. At other times, he would get these elaborate delusions that he was in prison and then lash out at the staff.
17. Family Falling Apart
I work as a nurse in a cath lab. Once was on call when we got a patient with a massive heart attack, no chance of a sinus rhythm so far and incredibly hard to resuscitate because he had had a coronary bypass and the bones in his chest were fused together like a knight’s armor. This was a comparatively young man in my line of work, mid-fifties I guess. He died in our cath lab.
After his death, we learned the utterly heartbreaking truth. It turns out he had a very heated argument with his grown-up son that night when he collapsed and had his heart attack. Apparently, a couple of days later his son hung himself in the woods near where they lived.
18. Anything But a Wild Goose Chase
My mom was a night shift ER nurse before I was born. Tis is what she told me was one of her worst (but in a long and convoluted way, best) nights. They bring in this dude who is on something. They don’t know what exactly, but he’s clearly going buckwild. They leave him restrained and alone in one area of the hospital to work the drug out and hopefully be manageable by dawn. Eventually my mom goes on a break to eat because it’d been a slow night and she was hungry. She got her food out of the break room in the area of the hospital where the previously mentioned drug guy was and eats in there.
Eventually she smells something burning and goes outside to check on what it is. It turns out the guy had a lighter he had wiggled out of his pocket and began to burn off the restraints. She knows she can’t stop him at this point so she runs to the doors to alert security. In some twisted horror movie series of events, the doors are locked up but she sees someone at a desk on the other side. Too late, drug man’s now freed himself and is going to start chasing my mom.
She outruns him and manages to bang on the door once she makes a lap around the area. Not enough time to get helped this lap, she runs off again, still being pursued by the maniac. Third time’s the charm, she’s far enough ahead of him and the doors are unlocked and ready for her. By this point the cops have already arrived and two officers go through the doors to restrain him and take him in. The third talks to her and comforts her. Little did she know, that moment would change her life.
That officer was the man she later married and had a child with. Eventually she also later divorced him, but still considers it a great night because it led to the existence of her child: me!
19. Raw Emotion
The saddest stories are always the ones to do with kids. A six-year-old girl had been shot in a drive-by and was being coded by the time she arrived. She didn’t make it. I heard her mother receive the news and start screaming from down the hall. That terrible memory will stick with me forever.
20. A Fly On the Wall
I had a patient who would get a blood transfusion about once a month. The wound smelled like week-old roadkill and you could smell it all the way down the hallway. While reinforcing her wound dressings one night, we unwrapped a bandage that was holding an abdominal pad in place to catch the drainage that was soaking through the primary wound dressing.
When we pulled the ace bandage and abdominal pad off, our jaws dropped. A FLY came flying out of the wound dressing. Both myself and the nurse saw it and the nurse let out an EEEKK! Patient asked “what happened?” Fellow nurse is barely holding it together and I tell the patient “umm, a fly came out of the dressing.” Patient replies “oh yeah, that happens sometimes.”
Medical maggots are used to clean wounds, but medical maggots cannot become actual flies. They try to pupate from larva to fly but have been modified to prevent them from being able to. This was definitely NOT a medical maggot because we never used them on her wound as it was not a candidate for maggot therapy. Lady was not homeless and would be considered middle class.
21. Reimagining the Limits of Her Field
An elderly meth addicted sex workee was admitted for sepsis yet again. Cultures are all negative until someone sees that her colostomy is a bit too red and puffy to be considered normal. We cultured it and she had syphilis as well as a bunch of MRSA. Turns out she was letting some of her clients penetrate her stoma. When we told her what we had figured out, she just shrugged and said that a hole is a hole.
22. Body and Sole
I once saw a rotten diabetic foot wound that was black. It smelled like roadkill and encompassed the patient’s entire big toe. The underside of the toe had a massive open spot with thick pus. It looked like I could have irrigated it and the bones would have been visible. All toes and half of the foot were amputated.
23. Needle in the Haystack
A severely addicted heroin user was admitted for sepsis and respiratory failure. About three days into his admission we find multiple broken needles lodged in his arms while trying to place a picc line. After a few more days, he codes which was uneventful until the abcess that was brewing under his left clavicle exploded and sprayed pus everywhere.
He survived that and went for an I&D which left a gaping hole in his chest and neck you could fit three fists in. His clavicle had rotted away from osteomyelitis. He had minimal tissue left connecting his neck to his shoulder on the left side. After 30 days intubated in the ICU, he finally died. All the while, his drug-addicted sister kept stopping by and telling us how he was a fighter and was going to make a full recovery.
24. Oh, the Humanity!
Car rolls up in front of the hospital and dumps out a girl in truly horrific condition. She has an axe sticking out of her head. Immediate surgery. The doctors tried their best, but sadly, she didn’t make it. At least the police caught the people who dumped her. But, yeah, seeing the cruelty of humanity is the worst.
25. Hope is All We Have
A 20-year-old patient was brought in for a motorcycle accident sans helmet. Kid “survived” but tragically became a vegetable living off of 15 different tubes. He literally lost too much brain tissue. That kind of stuff is par for the course in a level one trauma center. What was hard was watching his parents stay in his room in shifts, documenting every little twitch and spasm, reporting them all to us as a sign that he was “waking up,” only to have to be gently told (after assessing of course) that it’s just spasms with no conscious thought.
It was utterly heartbreaking. They would also happily keep telling us about the welcome home party they had planned for him, and making jokes that they’re never letting him buy a bike again. One day they started visiting less and less, and eventually stopped coming at all. Finally, they made him a DNR. He was their only child.
26. Man on a Mission
A schizophrenic homeless man told me how he had to smoke all of the crack before the crack mommas could, so that he can save the crack momma’s babies.
27. They Played Right Into Her Hands
Mental health nurse here. One day, I responded to a duress alarm on another ward. A female patient on a psychiatric intensive care unit had become violent and could not be deescalated. It was decided that physical restraint and intramuscular medication would be needed to settle her down.
Anyway, as the team of five nurses approached her she was standing there with her legs apart and shouting at us. Just as we stepped into her space to initiate the restraint she stuck her fingers into herself (she was menstruating at the time) and managed to stick them into the mouth of one of the female nurses doing the restraint. The patient was extremely amused. Nurse vomited after the restraint and had to leave for the day.
28. Down in the Dumps
I’ve seen mentally unstable patients smear feces all over themselves and their beds. I’ve also had mentally stable patients smear feces all over the walls and floor of the bathroom because they were mad at the nursing staff. Only problem was that the staff she was mad at was the one from the previous shift, who was now at home sleeping while I enjoyed the thrilling privilege of cleaning the patient and bathroom up.
29. Welcome Aboard!
It was my first day of being a medical assistant at an urgent care center. I was asked to assist with an abscess drainage. I said sure. Walk into the room, the patient is laying on the bed with her legs in stirrups. NBD, just assumed the abscess was on her inner thigh maybe. I was so, so wrong. She had TWO abscesses, one on each side of her labia, each about the size of a date. So the doctor cuts into the first one. Now usually with abscesses, you cut it open and blood and pus drains out. This one though….. She cut it open and a green fluid the consistency of molasses started to leak out.
The smell was absolutely terrible, but I could not react as the patient could see my face and I did not want to embarrass her anymore. When the draining slowed down, the doctor literally started pulling on it, basically roping it out of the wound. After packing the drained abscesses I had to bandage her up. After the patient left, I was congratulated by my coworkers for keeping composure, especially for it having been the first procedure on my first day! I loved that job and miss it every day, but I don’t really miss the craziness.
30. Difficult Situation
Nothing was as emotionally tough as the 12-year-old who crashed a car on a co-worker’s property. He was declared brain dead the next morning. The staff lined the halls for an honor walk as his bed rolled by to the OR for an organ procurement. As the father of two young boys myself, I broke down and cried as the mother said goodbye. She adjusted his blanket to keep him warm and kept telling him, “It’ll be ok. I’ll see you later. It’ll be ok.”
31. On Her Own
One of the worst was a lady who lived by herself and had fainted on her patio. No one found her until three days had passed. She had been lying in her own feces, but that’s not even the worst part. When she came into hospital, we found live maggots crawling throughout her body.
32. Safety Cushion
A lady came in via ambulance with a seat cushion stuck to her backside. She had pooped in her pants at home and had no one to care for her. She did this for over two weeks before someone called adult protective services. She had to have SURGERY to remove the cushion from her backside because all that poop had cemented the cushion to her skin. Absolutely terrible.
33. Better Late Than Never
We had a lady with sores and foul smelling discharge coming from her private parts. We spent days trying to figure out what had happened, labs sent, no infections, swabs clear. It was an enigma…until I learned the disturbing truth.
I caught her cleaning that area with bleach. She thought that’s how you were supposed to keep it clean.
34. One Thing Leads to Another
My best friend is an RN and her favorite story is about a super nice lady in her late 30s who came in because of an abscess near her private part. Basically she got an ingrown hair from shaving, which got infected and resulted in most (if not all…I can’t remember) of her labia needing to be removed.
But why stop there, right?!
Turns out, the tissue just did not want to heal. She was in the hospital for nearly a month while they continued to do incisions and drainages farther and farther up this poor woman’s abdomen until she basically had no flesh from the belly button down to her lady bits. It did finally start to heal but holy cow!
35. Clip Art Gone Wrong
When I did hospital placement this past year, I saw a couple…interesting things. A teenage girl came in after she stabbed herself in the genitals with paperclips to the point where they had to be surgically removed. That was probably one of the most memorable for me.
36. Selfless Mother
Labor nurse here! A 36-year-old female patient came in who had been diagnosed with stage four ovarian cancer in her eighth week of pregnancy. It was an awful situation, but it got even worse. She and her husband had been trying for a baby for ten years. She was advised to terminate the pregnancy to pursue aggressive treatment, of course she refused.
She was induced at 32 weeks and her entire abdomen was overcome with malignant tumors by this time. The cancer had also spread to her lungs and bones. Baby was born, sent to NICU and mom was sent home on hospice. Tragically, she died three weeks later. Baby is doing fine today and just turned a year old.
37. Fellas, What Are You Doing?
Here are some of the things I’ve helped remove from grown men’s genitals: LEGO lightsaber, baby carrot, plastic spoon, small circular magnets, purple crayon, golf pencil. And I’ve only been in emergency medicine for six years.
38. Taking the Law Into Her Own Hands
I had a patient who had a sacral decube that was HUGE. My head would have fit in the hole, no hyperbole. The dressing change was like trying to pull a deep dish extra cheese pizza off someone’s caved in lower back, she had so much slough. She lived through that for months. Plus she was demented, deaf, blind, on dialysis, had AKAs to her hips, and had bilat ampitations to her elbows. Constantly begged Jesus to let her die. Her daughter had Power of Attorney and just wouldn’t change the code status.
39. Thigh Expectations
There was this obese woman who had horrible lymphedema which made it hard for her to walk. Instead of getting up to go to the bathroom or commode, she would ask for a towel to stuff between her legs and would piss all over herself. The smell of that woman’s inner legs cannot be described with words.
40. Annual Checkup
My mother in law is a nurse and every year around Christmas there is a man who comes in because of a baffling holiday tradition. Every year, he has a candle stuck up his bum. The weird part is that every year, the candle gets progressively bigger and bigger. Last year, she compared the candle to the size of a pickle jar.
41. Down and Dirty
Seriously, I have witnessed so many different things like these. But the last one was one of the worst. The patient had developed a fistula between his intestine and his bladder, causing stool to leak into his bladder. The patient reported that this started the previous day. It was confirmed with a urine sample. Thinking that the patient may have accidentally given a urine and stool sample in the same container, a catheter was inserted and the flow coming out was confirmed as stool and urine.
The patient was quickly transferred to a specialty surgeon.
42. Homemade Disaster
A man was discharged from a mental health facility a few days prior. He went home and built a gun in his garage out of pipes. He proceeded to shoot himself in the chest. His wife called EMS. He was talking when he came into the ER. He asked for water because he was thirsty. This is usually the first sign that someone isn’t going to make it. The CT scan showed there was a bullet in the heart. He was rushed into my OR.
The trauma surgeon split the ribs and was feeling around for where the bullet went. Meanwhile, the front desk is trying to get ahold of the cardiovascular surgeon on call. He’s out of town and says to call one of his partners. The first partner is also out of town, the second and third are both an hour away at other hospitals.
The trauma surgeon finds a hole in the left ventricle. I get ahold of another surgeon who isn’t on call but is 20 minutes away. He says the patient needs to get on bypass if there’s any chance, but he’ll probably end up dying anyway. Anesthesia is on a massive transfusion protocol, but his vitals are not improving. The surgeon opens the pericardium and it sounds like a water balloon hitting the pavement.
In an instant, a liter of crimson-colored blood pours out of the drapes and onto the floor. Anesthesia calls out there’s no pulse. Another liter and a half pour from the drapes. We now know where all the blood went. The next two hours include filling out paperwork and calling the medical examiner. I have to speak to the widow and his mother about signing the forms for the ME.
His death will have to be investigated by the county. I still have to get the meat wagon from the morgue and put him on ice. My shift ended three hours prior, but it’s my death in my OR so I’m responsible for all the details and paperwork.
I work as an ER nurse and had a patient with a little dizziness, a little nausea and a swollen abdomen. She was fairly bright, able to talk, and nothing seemed too horrific. But she was turning a grim gray color and breathing quickly. Our average wait time today was two hours. I could have put her back in the queue and moved on.
But I had a little dark feeling that there was something sinister happening here. So I called our most senior doctor out of a consultation and asked him to see her. Right now. Ever heard of your abdominal aorta? Enormous blood vessel that can pouch out, suddenly rupture, and make you bleed internally to death in minutes?
It’s called a burst AAA (abdominal aortic aneurysm). You’ve heard of it now. That’s what she had. I’ve never seen one before. But now I have. Within five minutes, she was barely responding. Within ten, her blood pressure had dropped to a barely sustainable level. Within twenty minutes, I was pouring blood into her and eight people were around the bed.
Within an hour, she was on an operating table clinging to life. But because I raised the alarm, and because my team worked their butts off, that woman is still, somehow, alive. Feels good, man.
44. Always Check the Decimals
I very nearly injected a premature baby that had Down Syndrome with ten times the amount of Lasix I was supposed to give him: I had put the decimal in the wrong place when I did the math on the dose. That baby would almost certainly have died if I’d given it to him. Like, there is no question in my mind that he would have died.
I had the liquid drawn up in the syringe and had the syringe actually in the port ready to push through before I looked inside the chamber and realised how uncharacteristically full it seemed. Paediatric IV doses of anything are simply tiny. I was supposed to give him 0.1 mls, and nearly gave him 1.0mls. I needed a very large cup of tea after that.