RaDonda Vaught, a former nurse at Vanderbilt University Medical Center who was convicted on felony charges for a fatal medical error, was sentenced to three years of probation, a decision many nurses and medical experts praised.
In 2017, Vaught withdrew a vial from an electronic medication cabinet and administered the drug to Charlene Murphey, a 75-year-old patient.
Unfortunately, instead of grabbing Versed, a sedative to help calm Murphey before she underwent a scan, Vaught accidentally grabbed vecuronium, a powerful paralyzer that stopped the patient's breathing and left her brain dead before the error was discovered. Murphey ultimately died on Dec. 27, 2017.
Following the fatal error, the Tennessee Board of Nursing last year revoked Vaught's RN license, effectively ending her nursing career. Vaught was also charged and ultimately found guilty of gross neglect of an impaired adult and negligent homicide. She faced up to eight years in prison.
On Friday, Davidson County Criminal Court Judge Jennifer Smith sentenced Vaught to three years in prison, but granted her supervised probation, meaning Vaught will avoid prison time.
"This offense occurred in a medical setting. It was not motivated by any intent to violate the law," Smith said. "She has no criminal record. She's been removed from the healthcare setting. She will never practice nursing again. The situation will never be repeated."
Smith also said Vaught would receive a judicial diversion, meaning her conviction will be expunged from the records if she completes her probation.
"Ms. Vaught is well aware of the seriousness of the offense," Smith said, adding that Vaught "credibly expressed remorse in this courtroom."
"This was a terrible, terrible mistake, and there have been consequences to the defendant," Smith said.
In a joint statement, the American Nurses Association and the Tennessee Nurses Association said they were "grateful to the judge for demonstrating leniency" in Vaught's sentence. "Unfortunately, medical errors can and do happen, even among skilled, well-meaning, and vigilant nurses and health care professionals."
Robyn Begley, CNO at the American Hospital Association said the organization was "pleased" with the judge's decision.
"Tragic incidents that result from medical errors should not be criminalized," Begley said. "Criminal prosecutions will discourage health caregivers from coming forward with their mistakes and will complicate efforts to retain and recruit more people into nursing and other health care professions that are already understaffed."
Still, the fact that Vaught was prosecuted in the first place brought criticism from those in the industry.
"Nurses don't need to go to prison for doing our jobs. We were heroes two years ago, and now are being threatened with going to jail," said Bobbi Martin, a nurse and president of the Global Nurse Network. "We need the support from the public to make sure that they know what we do is dangerous every day, and that the hospitals that employ us put us in this situation."
Tanya Leshko, an attorney at Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney, said Vaught's case "will make nurses more scared. The way you make patients safer is to improve systems. What they did here, for whatever reason, is approach an individual incident in a very punitive manner."
"We don't believe that penalizing an individual that publicly is going to help a single patient. I think it's going to be quite the opposite," said Marcus Schabacker, president and CEO of ECRI. "It's going to have the effect of people trying to cover up their potential mistakes or near misses."
But Carol Michel, a partner at Weinberg Wheeler Hudgins Gunn & Dial, said she doesn't believe Vaught's case will spur similar cases every time a medical error occurs.
"There is a heightened visibility and risk of making a medical error. Now, you are looking at a criminal prosecution on top of losing your license," Michel said. "Pile that on top of a stressful job as a healthcare provider, particularly as we have been going through the pandemic and a national nursing shortage." (Bella, Washington Post, 5/14; Kelman, Kaiser Health News, 5/13; Hartnett, Modern Healthcare, 5/13; Christ/Kacik, Modern Healthcare, 5/13; DePeau-Wilson, MedPage Today, 5/13; Medina, New York Times, 5/15)
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