Tag Archives: nursing

Tying Sheets to Keep Patients Alive

The informant worked as a nurse in South Carolina for almost a decade. Here, she recounts a way the nurses would try to ward off death from patients on their death beds.

T:  The first one I can think about is in nursing. When, um, I know this sounds terrible, but in nursing when a patient who would not be doing well, who would be passing away, and dying, the nurses would go into their rooms and tie sheets to the corners of their bed. And supposedly that would keep them from dying until, at least– and keep them hanging on supposedly– so they wouldn’t die until later. At least until they were gone. So they wouldn’t die while they were there. 

L: In the room with them?

T: Until the next shift, yeah. 

L: Wait, is this a thing you did in the South or a thing you did in LA? 

T: The South. I didn’t hear about it much here in LA. 

L: It’s like, “Don’t die on my shift, please!”

T: Yeah, they would do it all the time. I would go in and find the corners tied to the bedsheets and I would have to reprimand them. Because families would come in and want to know why there would be, um– and mostly it was the nursing assistants. It wouldn’t be the nurses. And you know, I hate to say it, but, you know, the nursing assistants wouldn’t want to have to deal with the extra work and everything. So I would have to go reprimand the nursing assistants cause the families would come in like, “Why are the corners tied on the end of mama’s bed sheet?” 

L: Wait, so how–? So they would tie a bed sheet to, like, the post? 

T: No, no. You know how you have the top sheet and you have the fitted sheet? The top sheet, the corners on the sides, the corners on the ends. Where the corners are, they would tie a knot in all four corners. Supposedly that would keep the patient hanging on. 

L: Oh, so they’d tie the sheet to itself? 

T: No, no. All four corners, you know how when you take the sheet out of where its tucked in– you know how it hangs down before it’s tucked in? They would take that long sheet out and then they would tie a knot in it, in that corner and the knot would hang down. And a knot would hang down on the other corner, a knot would hang down on another corner. And all four corners would have a knot hanging on it.

 And I would come in, and the family would come in and I’d be like, “Oh my God! They did it again!” It would make me so mad. And I would be like, trying to explain, “you have to understand, our nursing assistants have different beliefs. And they’re just trying to keep mama here as long as possible. And we understand we’re just trying to make her comfortable”. And it would be hospice patients too! People we were trying to make comfortable and let go. You know? And here they come, trying to look like they’re trying to hang onto them. Like, “No! Don’t do that!”

L: Do you remember if this was, like, a white person thing? Or like a black person thing? Or like a both?

T: It mostly was a black person thing, to be honest. So, um, there was a lot of education there. Especially on our hospice unit when I was involved with, um, being in charge of the hospice patients. I really had to do a lot of education and make sure the girls were not doing that. And have to really, really, “y’all can not do that with these patients”. That’s totally the opposite of what our goal is here. You could almost explain it like, “Oh, we’re just trying to make mama hang in there,” but it was really difficult on the hospice unit. 


The reason I asked the informant if this tradition was a white or black thing is because neighborhoods in the Deep South of the United States are still very much segregated based on race. While whites and blacks from the Deep South do share a unifying cultural identity, there are many differences and nuisances that distinctively the two. So I thought it important to know which community this this tradition came from.

Later, the informant agreed with me that this tradition would seem sweet on any other unit that the hospice unit. This tradition runs counter-intuitive to the purpose of a hospice unit.

Opening Windows to Let the Soul Out

The informant worked as a nurse in South Carolina and in Southern California for almost two decades. Here she recounts a cross-cultural tradition that nurses perform after a patient has passed.

T: As far as nursing goes, we would have nurses who would, uh, come in the room. We would have nurses come in, and even nurses here in California I would have some, and um, I don’t know if it was regional or not, cause I would have a lot of nurses that were travelers and a lot of nurses that were from all over the country. You know, cause we have– cause California has so many nurses from so many different places. And you know, how you say, there’s no Californian born in California. But, um, we would have nurses once the patient had died and the family seen the patient, and sometimes even before that, they would open, if they could, they would open the windows in the room.

L: Oh! So their soul could get out?

T: Yeah. So that was another superstition as far as nursing goes. Nurses would, uh, tend to do when they weren’t superstitious in any other way. Nurses tend to be very scientific and clinical–that kinda stuff. But that was a nursing thing that nurses would do, not just the nursing assistants. 

L: Do you remember if that was from any specific nationality or culture? Or did it sort of catch on with everyone? 

T: It crossed a lot of barriers, I think. I know they did it in the South a lot. When I was in the South, I mean, it was very a Southern thing. But when I came here (To Los Angeles) I noticed that a lot of different– cause there are a lot of different cultures here– I noticed a lot of cultures did that. It wasn’t just a Southern thing. Yeah, a lot of different cultures did that. And a lot of different religious cultures seemed to do it. Like, letting the soul be free and not trapped. That kind of thing. 


It’s interesting how the informant says that this tradition is not only seen on opposite sides of the United States, but is also crosses ethnic boundaries as well. This leads me to wonder if the origins of opening the window for someone’s soul to leave may be polygenetic, or if it is a tradition that is passed down from nurse to nurse in the United States and has slowly worked its way across the country.

Nursing Superstitions


My informant is a twenty-one-year-old college student in Boston, Massachusetts. She is studying to be a nurse and has worked in the emergency room at both Massachusetts General Hospital and Brigham and Women’s Hospital.


“I’m not technically a nurse yet so I’ve only really seen this stuff happen…but you kind of catch on. The biggest one I think is to never say that you’re having a “quiet” day, because that’s when everything like, blows up in your face. I’ve had nurses seriously freak out at each other for saying that. That’s the big one, I think…there are also a few nurses, no one that I know really well, but some people say that if you tie a nurse in a patient’s sheets they’ll live through your shift. They’d only do it to the really sick people — you know like bad accidents, or kids, or something. I don’t know if it works, necessarily, but I will say that when we think we’re keeping our patients alive, we’re working a lot harder and people tend to stay alive just a little bit longer, if that makes sense.”


The never-say-quiet superstition makes a lot of sense, though I’m not sure if it’s specific to nursing. I remember at my high school job scooping ice cream, we had a similar rule about not saying that the store was “slow” because that would mean a rush was imminent. The superstition about the knot, however, it interesting. It’s like the nurse is trying to create a bond between their patient’s life and the physical world; like they’re trying to keep the patient physically tied to their life. Though a simple gesture, it speaks to how seriously nurses take their work. They’ll do anything to keep their patient’s alive, even if its as simple as a knot in a bed sheet.

Birth Plans Jinx the Actual Birth

The informant is my mother, Dayna Rayburn, born in 1960 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She grew up in Tulsa, before going to college at the University of Oklahoma and graduating with a degree in nursing. She has worked at St. Francis Hospital in the newborn nursery for thirty years.

In this piece, my mother talks about how she feels “birth plans”, or when the parents think they know more than the nurse, will jinx the birth of the baby.

Mom: One last nursing thing I thought of.

Me: Okay.

Mom: In the past few years, some expectant parents have done research on the internet and have downloaded these “birth plans” which indicate their preference on labor, mobility, hydration, and nourishment, monitoring, pain relief, augmentation, which is what they want to do to speed up labor…

Me: Like, literally?

Mom: No, like distraction.

Me: Got it.

Mom: The birth plans basically just include things about what they want. Inevitably, things never go as planned. Either the moms require a C-section, the mom and or the baby do not tolerate labor or the baby has to go to the neonatal intensive care nursery, which is where the sick babies go.

Me: That’s where you used to work.

Mom: Yes, but then I left because it was too sad. Is that okay to say?

Me: Yes, yes.

Mom: Okay, but yeah. Nurses believe that the birth plan jinxes the mom and baby because the delivery never goes as planned. It’s kind of like life: you think it’s going one way and then it comes and changes everything. All nurses think the birth plans sets the moms up for feelings of failures. Nobody can plan what will happen for sure with labor and delivery. There’s just too many variables.

My mother, especially in her profession, does not like it when someone talks about nothing have gone wrong, or anticipates that nothing will go wrong. She always wants people to be prepared for anything, which is what you have to do when you’re working as a nurse. These parents coming into the hospital believing their child’s birth will go smoothly obviously irks my mother, as she thinks they have jinxed themselves and, most importantly, their child. I know this also bothers my mom on a different level, as she hates it when her patients think they know better than her. After working as a neo-natal nurse for thirty years, she hates being told by a twenty four year old what is going to happen.

Knocking on Wood in Nursing

The informant is my grandmother, a Cherokee woman born in 1932. She worked as a nurse for her entire career, though has been retired for some time.

In this piece, my grandmother talks about being “jinxed” in the nursing profession and what she does to combat them.

M: We would always teach the younger girls about knocking on wood.

Me: Why would you knock on wood?

M: A lot of times they would be really happy with how their day was going, and would saying something like “today’s a really good day”, and us older nurses would hate that.

Me: Why?

M: Because we felt as if they were jinxing us. So we would make them go “knock on wood” to prevent the jinx.

My grandmother has never seemed like a superstitious woman, but perhaps in her profession, where there is a lot of luck involved, superstition comes naturally. A lot that happens in nursing is unexpected and not avoidable, so having superstitions is a way to make them feel as if they are somewhat in control of the situation.