RaDonda Vaught, the former nurse at the center of a case that sparked national outrage and debate over whether healthcare workers should face criminal charges when they commit medical errors, has been sentenced to three years of supervised probation for her role in a deadly drug mix-up.
Ms. Vaught mistakenly administered the powerful neuromuscular blocker vecuronium instead of the sedative Versed to 75-year-old Charlene Murphey, who died a day later. The error happened in 2017 when Ms. Vaught was a critical care nurse at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn. She was convicted of criminally negligent homicide and gross neglect of an impaired adult in March.
“When Ms. Murphey died, a part of me died with her,” Ms. Vaught told the courtroom before the sentence was announced. She also apologized to members of the Murphey family after one of them testified that, while they didn’t want to see Ms. Vaught serve extended jail time, they were disappointed that she never publicly apologized to them for her error.
The case sent shockwaves through the medical industry. Groups such as the American Nurses Association (ANA) and Institute for Safe Medication Practices were outraged and concerned that the criminalization of Ms. Vaught’s error was not only unjust to her, but would also have a chilling effect on others to self-report future mistakes — which has long been considered a crucial step in creating policies that prevent similar errors in the future. Members of the nursing community have said the case could also exacerbate an already critical nursing shortage across the country because other nurses fear that something similar could happen to them.
The Office of the Tennessee District Attorney General said the conviction produced the result they wanted — making sure Ms. Vaught could never be a nurse again. Judge Jennifer Smith of the Davidson County Criminal Court, who issued the ruling after an emotional daylong sentencing hearing, said her sentence sent a strong message to the Murphey family that there loved one is not forgotten while also acknowledging that Ms. Vaught’s actions were indeed accidental, that she was remorseful and that she would never be in a position to repeat them.
After the sentence was announced, the ANA issued a statement that says, “We are grateful to the judge for demonstrating leniency in the sentencing of Nurse Vaught. Unfortunately, medical errors can and do happen, even among skilled, well-meaning, and vigilant nurses and healthcare professionals. Our hearts continue to go out to the loved ones of both Ms. Murphey and Nurse Vaught, all of whom are deeply affected by this tragedy and face a long road of healing.”
The ANA statement called for healthcare leaders, regulators and administrators to create work structures and recognize “that mistakes happen, and systems fail.” The structures should include a confidential review process, according to the ANA, which says criminalizing medical errors does not preserve environments that are conducive to safe patient care.
For an in-depth look at the case and more reactions to the criminalization of medical mistakes, check out the cover story in the June edition of Outpatient Surgery Magazine.