A former nurse whose medication error killed a patient in Tennessee was sentenced to three years probation on Friday, ending a case that had sparked concern among healthcare workers fearing medical errors could be criminalized .
Nurse RaDonda Vaught has apologized to relatives of 75-year-old victim Charlene Murphey, who was injected with a lethal dose of the paralyzing drug vecuronium instead of the sedative Versed as she was at Vanderbilt University Medical Center for a brain injury on Dec. 26, 2017, according to court documents.
Ms Murphey was due for a PET scan that day and wanted medication to control her anxiety, a lawyer for Ms Vaught said.
“Saying ‘I’m sorry’ doesn’t seem like enough,” Ms Vaught, 38, who broke down in tears, told Ms Murphey’s family at the sentencing. “But you deserve to hear that. You deserve to know that I’m so sorry for what happened.
Ms Vaught, who was found guilty in March of gross negligence of an intoxicated adult and negligent homicide, also faced diversion, which would clear her criminal record if she passes probation.
“This offense occurred in a medical setting,” Davidson County Criminal Court Judge Jennifer Smith said during sentencing. “It was not motivated by intent to violate the law, but by oversight, gross negligence and negligence, as the jury found. The defendant also accepted liability immediately. She pulled out all the stops the moment she recognized her mistake to remedy the situation.
Ms Vaught’s criminal conviction has rocked nurses across the country, who have complained of being exhausted by working conditions during the pandemic and continued staff shortages in hospitals. Her case was seen as another threat to the profession – one that could have a chilling effect on patient care if nurses became more hesitant to point out errors.
Ms Vaught said in March that the jury’s decision in her case “would have more impact on the nursing community and health care in general”.
The American Nurses Association agreed, saying in a statement in March that it was “deeply distressed by this verdict and the harmful ramifications of criminalizing honest reporting of errors.”
On Friday, the association said it was “grateful to the judge for showing leniency in the sentencing”.
“Unfortunately, medical errors can and do happen, even among trained, well-meaning and vigilant nurses and healthcare professionals,” the association said.
The Davidson County District Attorney’s Office, which is prosecuting the case, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Saturday. Prosecutors did not object to the probation sentence on Friday.
“We are very happy and relieved with the outcome of the conviction,” Peter Strianse, Ms Vaught’s lawyer, said on Saturday.
Ms Murphey’s son, Michael Murphey, told the court on Friday that ‘knowing my mum, the way my mum was and all, she wouldn’t want to see’ Ms Vaught serving a prison sentence.
“It’s just mom,” he said. “Mom was a very forgiving person.”
The Associated Press reported that Ms Murphey’s husband wanted Ms Vaught to serve a prison sentence.
As she waited to hear the judge’s sentence, Ms Vaught was visibly shaking and breathing deeply. After the sentencing, as others left the courtroom, she placed tissues over her eyes, laid her head on the table and cried.
Outside the courthouse, nurses dressed in purple gathered in support and applause, News Channel 5 in Nashville reported.
Speaking to reporters in March, Ms Vaught said what happened in 2017 “was something that will always be with me”.
“Anytime you take care of a patient and you have something that binds you, you don’t do it – good or bad – you don’t forget it as a nurse or as a good caregiver health,” she said.
Mr Strianse had argued that Ms Vaught’s errors were partly due to systemic problems at the hospital, such as communication problems with the pharmacy department.
But prosecutors had argued his mistakes were criminally negligent. She bypassed the medical system on a computer when she couldn’t find the drug Versed, typed in “VE” and chose the first drug (paralytic vecuronium) on the list, according to a Tennessee Bureau of Investigations report. .
She then “did not respond to a number of ‘red flags’,” according to the report: the vecuronium comes in powder form, unlike the Versed liquid, and the vecuronium has a red cap that reads “Warning: paralyzing agent”.
Ms Vaught later admitted to investigators that she had been ‘distracted by something’ at the time and should not have ‘overstepped the meds because it was not an emergency’ , according to the report. Ms Vaught eventually lost her nursing licence.
Erik Knutsen, a professor of medical malpractice law at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada, said on Saturday that while he doesn’t blame nurses for being concerned, especially during a pandemic, Ms Vaught’s case does not not report “an open season on nurses”. ”
Healthcare workers are used to negligence suits in which patients seek financial compensation, he said. Criminal lawsuits, however, are rarer and “feel personal” because, unlike other negligence lawsuits, the potential price is jail time.
“A district attorney’s office, before it even thinks about bringing a criminal charge, should be thinking, ‘Well, do we have a reasonable chance of convicting this person? “said Mr. Knutsen.
To stand a chance of a conviction, the district attorney would likely have believed that Ms. Vaught’s mistakes were particularly “gross and avoidable”, he said.
It’s likely prosecutors wanted to send a message and “deter this kind of behavior in the workplace that can hurt or kill,” Knutsen said.
“I think this is going to be a very, very rare one-time event,” he said. The prosecutor, he added, had sent a clear message: “Nurses, be careful.