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.