Tennessee nurse sentenced in fatal drug error with no prison time

RaDonda Vaught, a former Tennessee nurse convicted of two felony counts for a fatal medication error, whose trial became a rallying cry for nurses fearful of the criminalization of medical errors, will not have to spend any prison time.

Davidson County Criminal Court Judge Jennifer Smith on Friday granted Vaught a judicial diversion, meaning his conviction will be thrown out if he completes a three-year probation.

Smith said the family of the patient who died as a result of Vaught’s medication mix-up suffered a “terrible loss” and “nothing that happens here today can ease that loss.”

“Ms. Vaught is well aware of the seriousness of the offense,” Smith said. “She credibly expressed remorse in this courtroom.”

The judge noted that Vaught had no criminal record, has been removed from the health care setting and will never practice nursing again. The judge also said: “This was a terrible, terrible mistake and there have been consequences for the defendant.”

As the sentence was read, cheers arose from a crowd of hundreds of purple-clad protesters who gathered outside the courthouse in opposition to Vaught’s prosecution.

Vaught, 38, a former nurse at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, faced up to eight years in prison. In March, she was found guilty of criminally negligent homicide and gross negligence of a disabled adult in the 2017 death of 75-year-old patient Charlene Murphey. Murphey was prescribed Versed, a sedative, but Vaught, unaware of her, gave her a lethal dose of vecuronium, a powerful paralytic.

Charlene Murphey’s son, Michael Murphey, testified at Friday’s sentencing hearing that his family remains devastated by the sudden death of their matriarch. She was “a very forgiving person” who wouldn’t want Vaught to serve any prison time, he said, but her widowed father wanted Vaught to receive “the maximum sentence.”

“My dad suffers every day because of this,” said Michael Murphey. “He goes to the cemetery three or four times a week and he just sits and cries.”

Vaught’s case stands out because medical errors, even fatal ones, generally fall within the purview of state medical boards, and lawsuits are almost never prosecuted in criminal court.

The Davidson County District Attorney’s office, which did not advocate any particular sentence or oppose parole, described Vaught’s case as an indictment of a careless nurse, not the entire nursing profession. Prosecutors argued at trial that Vaught missed several warning signs when she took the wrong medication, including not realizing that Versed is a liquid and vecuronium is a powder.

Vaught admitted his error after the mix-up was discovered, and his defense largely focused on arguments that honest error should not constitute a crime.

During Friday’s hearing, Vaught said Murphey’s death changed her forever and that she was “open and honest” about her mistake in an effort to prevent future mistakes by other nurses. Vaught also said there was no public interest in sentencing her to prison because she might not be able to reoffend after she had her nursing license revoked.

“I have lost much more than my nursing license and my career. I will never be the same person,” Vaught said, his voice trembling as he began to cry. “When Mrs. Murphey died, a part of me died with her.”

At one point in his statement, Vaught turned to Murphey’s family and apologized both for the fatal mistake and how the public campaign against his prosecution may have forced the family to relive their loss.

“You don’t deserve this,” Vaught said. “I hope it doesn’t seem like people are forgetting their loved one. … I think we are in the middle of systems that do not understand each other.”

Prosecutors also argued at trial that Vaught circumvented safeguards by switching the hospital’s computerized medicine cabinet to “override” mode, which made it possible to remove Murphey’s non-prescription drugs, including vecuronium. Other nurses and nursing experts have told KHN that overrides are routinely used in many hospitals to quickly access medications.

Theresa Collins, a traveling nurse from Georgia who closely followed the trial, said she will no longer use the feature, even if it delays patient care, after prosecutors argued it showed Vaught’s recklessness.

“I’m not going to override anything beyond basic saline. I don’t feel comfortable doing it anymore,” Collins said. “When you criminalize what healthcare workers do, it changes the whole game.”

Vaught’s prosecution drew condemnation from nursing and medical organizations who said the case’s dangerous precedent would worsen the nursing shortage and make nurses less forthcoming about mistakes.

The case also sparked considerable social media backlash as the nurses streamed the trial via Facebook and supported Vaught on TikTok. That outrage inspired Friday’s protest in Nashville, which drew supporters from as far afield as Massachusetts, Wisconsin and Nevada.

Among those protesters was David Peterson, a nurse who marched in Washington, DC, on Thursday to demand health care reforms and safer nurse-to-patient ratios, then drove overnight to Nashville and slept in his car. to be able to protest Vaught’s sentence. The events were inherently intertwined, he said.

“The things that are being protested in Washington, the practices that are in place due to understaffing in hospitals, that is exactly what happened to RaDonda. And it puts every nurse at risk every day,” Peterson said. “It’s cause and effect.”

Tina Vinsant, a Knoxville nurse and podcast host who organized the Nashville protest, said the group had spoken with Tennessee lawmakers about legislation to protect nurses from criminal prosecution for medical errors and would pursue similar bills.” in all states.”

Vinsant said that they would continue this campaign even though Vaught was not sent to prison.

“She shouldn’t have been charged in the first place,” Vinsant said. “I want him to not spend time in jail, of course, but the sentence doesn’t really affect where we go from here.”

Janis Peterson, a recently retired ICU nurse from Massachusetts, said she attended the protest after recognizing in Vaught’s case the all too familiar challenges of her own nursing career. Peterson’s fear was a common refrain among nurses: “It could have been me.”

“And if it was me, and I looked out that window and saw 1,000 people who supported me, I would feel better,” he said. “Because for every one of those 1,000, there are probably 10 more who support her but couldn’t come.”

Blake Farmer of Nashville Public Radio contributed to this report.

KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces detailed journalism on health issues. Along with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three main operational programs of KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed nonprofit organization that provides information on health issues to the nation.

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