Ex-nurse RaDonda Vaught gets parole after injecting the wrong drug into a patient

Ex-nurse RaDonda Vaught gets parole after injecting the wrong drug into a patient

NASHVILLE, Tennessee — A former Tennessee nurse whose medication error killed a patient was sentenced to three years’ probation on Friday as hundreds of healthcare workers gathered outside the courthouse and warned that criminalizing such errors is leading to more hospital deaths will.

A state judge handed down the sentence to RaDonda Vaught after she apologized to relatives of the victim, Charlene Murphey, and said her mistake will forever be haunted by her. Vaught was found guilty in March of involuntary manslaughter and gross neglect of a disabled adult after she accidentally administered the wrong medication.

Nashville Criminal Court Judge Jennifer Smith said Vaught would be given a court distraction, a way for first-time offenders to have their charges dropped and their records erased after successfully completing parole. Prosecutors had opposed diversion, although they did not oppose parole.

The crowd of protesting nurses outside cheered, cried and hugged after hearing the verdict. The relief came after health care workers spent hours in the sun clutching every word of the judge’s long sentencing statement, some with closed hands linked in a chain.

The fact that Vaught, 38, was prosecuted at all has become a rallying point for many nurses already fed up with the poor working conditions exacerbated by the pandemic. The crowd outside listened to the hearing over loudspeakers and cheered as some of the victim’s relatives said they did not want jail time for Vaught.

RaDonda Vaught reacts as she is sentenced to three years of supervised probation on Friday, May 13, 2022 in Nashville, Tenn.
Former nurse RaDonda Vaught reacts after being sentenced to three years of supervised probation May 13, 2022 in Nashville, Tennessee.
Nicole Hester/The Tennessean via AP, Pool

“Knowing my mother, what my mother was like and everything, she wouldn’t want her not to serve a prison sentence. That’s just mom. Mom was a very forgiving person,” Michael Murphey told the court. However, Charlene Murphey’s husband wanted her to serve a prison sentence, relatives said.

Vaught apologized to the family in court, saying words would never fully express her “remorse and sadness”.

“My role in her untimely death will haunt me forever,” she said. “She didn’t deserve that.”

In considering whether to grant Vaught a court distraction, Smith cited Vaught’s remorse and honesty about the medication error.

Speaking ahead of her sentencing, Vaught apologized to Murphey’s family when discussing systemic hospital issues and the danger of criminalizing mistakes drew some attention to the death of her loved one.

“I’m sorry that public support for me has caused you to live through this over and over,” she told them. “No one forgot their loved one, no one forgot Ms. Murphey. We are all terribly, terribly sorry about what happened.”

Judge Jennifer Smith listens to the proceedings during RaDonda Vaught's sentencing Friday, May 13, 2022, in Nashville, Tennessee.
Nashville Criminal Court Judge Jennifer Smith said RaDonda Vaught’s criminal record can be wiped at the end of her probationary period.
Nicole Hester/The Tennessean via AP, Pool

After Vaught was found guilty in March, healthcare workers began posting on social media that they were giving up bedside care for administrative positions or even quitting the profession altogether. They said the risk of going to jail for making a mistake made breastfeeding unbearable.

On Friday, Vaught supporters wore purple t-shirts that read “#IAmRaDonda” and “Seeking Justice for Nurses and Patients in a Broken System” as they listened to speeches from fellow nurses and supporters. They also held a minute’s silence to commemorate Charlene Murphey.

Aleece Ellison traveled from Texas to join them. She was an emergency room nurse for 14 years and said she broke down in tears when Vaught was found guilty.

Healthcare workers protest against RaDonda Vaught's suspended sentence outside a courthouse in Nashville, Tennessee, May 13, 2022.
Health care workers protest RaDonda Vaught’s suspended sentence outside a Nashville courthouse on May 13, 2022.
AP Photo/Mark Humphrey

“Never in my 14 years have I felt so helpless,” she said. “That could be me.” She came to Nashville to “let the world know that criminalizing a mistake, an honest mistake, is not a direction we want to go.”

Janie Reed, who drove over from Memphis, said she became a nurse a few years ago because “the bedside became dangerous. … There were never enough nurses.”

“I don’t normally do this,” she said of the protest. “I’m just so passionate about it. Nurses will go to jail and more people will die for not reporting their mistakes.”

Vaught reported her mistake as soon as she realized what she had done wrong – on December 26, 2017, she injected 75-year-old Charlene Murphey with the paralyzing drug Vecuronium instead of the sedative Versed. Vaught admitted to making multiple mistakes that led to the injection death, but her defense attorney argued that systemic issues at Vanderbilt University Medical Center were at least partly to blame.

Rhonda Murphey speaks about the loss of her mother-in-law Charlene Murphey during the RaDonda Vaught sentencing hearing.
Rhonda Murphey speaks about the loss of her mother-in-law Charlene Murphey during the RaDonda Vaught sentencing hearing.

At Friday’s hearing, Michael Murphey spoke about the toll his mother’s death has had on the family.

“I was at work when this all happened, so I didn’t get to say goodbye to my mother. I wasn’t allowed to hug or kiss her,” he said. “My father suffers from it every day. He goes to the cemetery once or twice a week. He goes out and cries. He is 83 years old.”

His wife Chandra Murphey also testified on Friday how things were before her mother-in-law died.

“We used to get together for family dinners,” she says. “We’ve done so much together as a family, and it ended for us in a split second. We still wrapped her Christmas presents in our attic.”

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