The sentencing hearing for RaDonda Vaught has been set for May 13. The former Tennessee nurse was found guilty in late March for criminally negligent homicide in the death of a patient who was accidentally given the wrong medication.
During her trial, Vaught openly admitted that she made multiple errors with the medication, including injecting a paralyzing drug, vecuronium, into 75-year-old Charlene Murphey instead of the sedative drug Versed, that she was prescribed.
The incident occurred on Dec. 26, 2017 and now, some five years after, Vaught was found guilty of gross neglect of an impaired adult but not guilty of reckless homicide. Criminally negligent homicide was a lesser charge but included under the original charge.
It was a case that captured the attention of the nursing community as the defense argued that she was not acting outside of the norm and accused systemic problems at Vanderbilt University Medical Center as being partly to blame for the error.
According to records, Murphey had been admitted to the neurological intensive care unit on Dec. 24, 2017, after suffering from a brain bleed. Two days later, as doctors were determining its cause, they ordered a PET scan to check for cancer. Murphey was showing claustrophobic symptoms and was prescribed Versed for her anxiety, according to testimony.
Also according to testimony, when Vaught could not find ‘Versed’ in the automatic drug dispensing cabinet, she used an override and accidentally grabbed ‘vecuronium’ instead.
In addition to grabbing the wrong medicine, she failed to read the name of the drug, did not notice a red warning on the top of the medication, and did not stay with the patient to check for an adverse reaction, according to nurse legal consultant Donna Jones.
Vaught said that she is concerned that whatever the verdict levied against her will cause other health care providers “to be wary about coming forward to tell the truth. I don’t think the take-away from this is not to be honest and truthful.”
It is a concern being shared across the country.
In Nashville, Annie Kirby turned in her resignation. She most recently worked at the St. Thomas Hospital for Specialty Surgery and said this case caused her to reconsider her role in medicine.
“[I] primarily worked in intensive care settings; neuro ICU, cardiac ICU, PACU, surgical and medical ICU. Fifteen years of my life devoted to this; early mornings, late nights, overtime,” she told WKRN.
“I didn’t think they would convict her, it was emotional and then I thought what is next? This is a very slippery slope. If I forget to put a bed rail up and walk out of my room and my confused patient gets up and falls and ends up dying from that, am I facing criminal charges because we were short-staffed and overwhelmed and I just forgot? Where does the line end now? Where are we headed and it didn’t feel like it was anywhere good and that was very scary,” said Kirby.
The thought that she could be held criminally accountable scared Kirby out of her career. “I didn’t go into nursing thinking I could be arrested and placed in jail, taken away from my family and everyone I love.”
Patient safety expert Bruce Lambert, in an interview with the Associated Press prior to the verdict, said it was extremely concerning that Vaught was being criminally prosecuted for a medical error.
“This will not only cause nurses and doctors to not report medication errors, it will cause nurses to leave the profession,” said Lambert, director of the Center for Communication and Health at Northwestern University.
Prior to the sentencing, Vaught told reporters that she didn’t regret the honesty that could now be putting her in jeopardy. The honesty of admitting her mistake. She added that she believed she was being scapegoated after Vanderbilt became the subject of a surprise inspection by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
“Someone has to pay a price, and it’s really easy to say, ‘Just let her do it’,” she said. “Nurses see that. Medics see it. Radiology technicians see it.”
Those communities have rallied behind Vaught, raising awareness as well as advocating for her.
Janie Harvey Garner, who founded the nurse advocacy organization Show Me Your Stethoscope, said that the fundamentals have been shifted.
“What’s happened here is that health care has been completely changed,” she told the AP. “Now when we tell the truth, we’re incriminating ourselves.”
Garner, who also helped to raise money for Vaught’s defense, said that regular people simply do not understand how difficult nor how stressful working as a nurse can be.
She said errors are common and what happened to Vaught could have happened to anyone.
Vaught faces between three to six years in prison with her gross neglect conviction as well as one to two years on the criminally negligent homicide conviction. She has been free on bail and remains free until after she is sentenced.
She said she had not considered whether she would appeal.