RaDonda Vaught, Tennessee nurse who killed patient with wrong drug injection, sentenced to probation

RaDonda Vaught, Tennessee nurse who killed patient with wrong drug injection, sentenced to probation

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RaDonda Vaught, a former Tennessee nurse who was convicted of a felony for fatally injecting a patient with the wrong drug, was given a suspended sentence Friday in a case that became a rallying cry for healthcare workers who feared that medical errors would be criminalized.

Vaught, who worked at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, faced up to eight years in prison for giving 75-year-old Charlene Murphey a fatal dose of the wrong drug in December 2017 she couldn’t breathe anymore. Vaught, 38, was convicted in March of involuntary manslaughter and gross neglect of a disabled adult.

Davidson County Criminal Court Judge Jennifer Smith ruled Friday that Vaught would be granted a court distraction, meaning the conviction would be dropped from the record if she served a three-year probation.

“MS. Vaught recognizes the seriousness of the offense,” Smith said, according to NPR, noting that the Murphey family suffered a “terrific loss.” “She has credibly expressed her remorse in this courtroom.”

The judge added that Vaught, who shook and burst into tears when the order was read out, had no criminal record and would never be a nurse again.

“This was a terrible, terrible mistake and there were consequences for the defendant,” Smith said.

Vaught, who immediately took responsibility for her actions, had apologized to the Murphey family in court, saying she would “be forever haunted by my role in her untimely death.”

“She didn’t deserve that,” Vaught testified, the Associated Press reported. “I will never forget my role in it. I don’t know what else to say to do anything differently.”

The judge’s sentencing of Vaught to a suspended sentence ends a case that has stirred up healthcare workers who have spoken out against poor working conditions that have only worsened during the coronavirus pandemic.

Medical errors, including those resulting in death, are usually dealt with by state medical boards. Lawsuits against those involved in fatal medical errors are almost never pursued in criminal courts, making Vaught’s case a matter of national interest in recent months. Protesters in purple T-shirts that read “#IAmRaDonda” celebrated outside the courthouse as the verdict was announced.

The Davidson County District Attorney’s Office argued that their charges related to the case of a negligent nurse and did not refer to the nursing profession. Prosecutors have not opposed parole or requested a specific sentence in Vaught’s case.

Relatives testified that Charlene Murphey’s husband wanted Vaught to go to jail, but her son, Michael Murphey, told the court Friday he didn’t want the former nurse to go to jail.

“Knowing my mother as she was and what she was, she wouldn’t want her not to serve time in prison,” Murphey said in court, according to the AP. “It’s just mom. Mom was a very forgiving person.”

Vaught defender Peter Strianse did not immediately respond to a request for comment early on Saturday. He told reporters at a Friday news conference that Vaught “should be recognized for the dignity she has shown throughout this process, her focus and her concern for Charlene Murphey and Ms. Murphey’s family.”

On Christmas Eve 2017, Murphey became ill and was diagnosed with a subdural hematoma, a collection of blood on the surface of the brain. After being transferred to Vanderbilt from Sumner Regional Medical Center in Gallatin, Tennessee, her condition improved and she was transferred from the top level of the ICU. Before she could be released, doctors ordered a PET scan to determine the cause of the brain hemorrhage.

Because Murphey was claustrophobic, she was prescribed Versed, commonly known as midazolam, a sedative that would help her lie still for the PET scan. Vaught, who had been working in intensive care, was asked to fetch the drug and give it to the 75-year-old patient.

But when the nurse couldn’t find the sedative, she disengaged a guard and went into “override” mode, which gave her access to stronger drugs. She then mistakenly pulled out vecuronium and injected Murphey with the muscle relaxant. Vaught eventually realized the mistake, but Murphey had already gone into cardiac arrest and suffered partial brain death. She died the next day, December 27, 2017.

While Vaught admitted that she made several mistakes that led to the fatal injection of the wrong drug, Strianse argued that systemic issues at Vanderbilt were at least in part at the root of the circumstances leading to Murphey’s death. The hospital settled a legal dispute with Murphey’s family shortly after her death.

Vaught was investigated by the Board of Nursing after Murphey’s death, but she was not initially stripped of her license or suspended. That all changed about a year later, when federal and state investigations threatened Vaught with criminal charges and VUMC with possible sanctions. Vaught eventually had her license revoked after going before the Nursing Board last year.

After she was found guilty in March, Davidson County District Attorney Glenn Funk said in a statement that the goal of the sentencing was for Vaught to never regain her nursing license.

“That’s the outcome Charlene Murphey’s family wanted,” Funk said in March, the Tennessean reported. “They wanted justice for Charlene Murphey and that’s what our office achieved for them.”

At Friday’s hearing, Strianse asked whether prosecutors had proven the wrong injection undoubtedly caused Murphey’s death. Vaught’s attorney noted that Murphey’s death certificate originally identified both intracerebral hemorrhage and cardiac arrest as the cause of death, according to WZTV. He argued that a new death certificate listed vecuronium poisoning a year later and was issued without an autopsy being performed on the body.

Vaught told the court her conviction will have a greater impact in potentially criminalizing medical errors.

“This conviction will inevitably affect how they proceed when they report medical errors, medication errors and raise concerns when they see something that they feel needs to be brought to someone’s attention,” Vaught told the court, reported USAToday. “I am concerned that this will have a profound impact on patient safety.”

She then apologized to the family when discussion of the criminalization of medical errors and the effusive support Vaught received from healthcare workers distracted from Murphey’s death.

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

Murphey’s family testified Friday who the matriarch was and how she was still “wrapping her Christmas presents in our attic” more than four years later.

“My dad suffers from it every day,” Michael Murphey said, according to the AP. “He goes to the cemetery three to four times a week and just sits out there and cries.”

Vaught, who cried throughout testimony, reiterated that she had “anxiety, depression, regret and sleepless nights” and repeatedly repeated her mistakes.

“I will never be the same person again,” she testified. “When Ms. Murphey died, a part of me died with her.”

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