By Carol Davis
Former nurse RaDonda Vaught will serve three years of probation for the 2017 drug error that killed a Vanderbilt University Medical Center patient.
Vaught was convicted in March after a three-day trial that continues to capture the attention of nurses and nursing organizations across the country, many of whom worry that the case could set a precedent of criminalizing medical errors.
Under Tennessee’s sentencing guidelines, Vaught could have been ordered to serve three to six years in prison for neglect and one to two years for negligent homicide.
Instead, Vaught received a diverted sentence, which means that if she successfully completes her probation, the charges will be expunged from the record.
“It is my hope that changes in the practices and protocols in the medical setting that have arisen since this event may at least be some positive aspect that has arisen and that going forward, I hope that it prevents this type of situation from happening again,” Davidson County Criminal Court Judge Jennifer Smith said Friday afternoon in imposing the sentence.
“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,” according to a joint statement from the American Nurses Association (ANA) and the Tennessee Nurses Association.
After speaking with Vaught and her attorney, ANA sent a letter to the judge which would be submitted into evidence on Vaught’s behalf.
“The letter expresses, from a professional and nursing perspective, legal reasons why we would humbly request leniency,” according to the ANA. “We were compelled to take this action because we all see ourselves in Vaught. Nurses see themselves in Vaught; our peers and colleagues and healthcare professionals beyond nursing see themselves in Vaught.”
“We are pleased that the judge showed leniency in the sentencing of a healthcare professional who made a medical error. Tragic incidents that result from medical errors should not be criminalized,” said Robyn Begley, DNP, RN, chief nursing officer of the American Hospital Association and CEO of the American Organization for Nursing Leadership.
“When errors happen hospitals and health systems need open lines of communication to identify and understand the series of events so they can update patient safety systems to further prevent errors,” Begley said in a statement. “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 healthcare professions that are already understaffed.”
Vaught has consistently taken responsibility for the deadly error, which occurred when the patient, Charlene Murphey, 75, was supposed to get Versed, a sedative intended to calm her. Instead, Vaught accidentally administered vecuronium, a powerful paralyzer, which stopped the patient’s breathing.
In a statement prior to sentencing, Vaught stood at a podium and first turned to face Murphey’s family.
“I’m so sorry for what you have lost,” she told them. “I will never forget my role in this.”
Vaught then directed the rest of her statement to the judge.
“Words alone will never fully express my remorse for my actions,” Vaught told the court. “I will never be the same person. When Mrs. Murphey died, a part of me died with her.”
Following the patient’s death in December 2017, Vaught was fired from Vanderbilt University Medical Center and her nursing license was revoked.
Vanderbilt received no punishment for the fatal error.
The criminalization of Vaught’s mistake has dismayed nurses across the country who have expressed outrage over the case said that the conviction is unfair. Indeed, the judge acknowledged the vast amount of correspondence—letters, emails, voicemails—the court has received regarding the case.
A petition to grant her clemency has grown to more than 212,000 signatures, and several hundred supporters gathered outside the courthouse Friday morning, beginning with a moment of silence for Charlene Murphey.
“The best we can hope for is to try to learn from the mistakes that were made and to fix the errors in the system that allowed them,” rally organizer Tina Vinsant told Nashville television station WSMV. “Obviously something tragic happened but we’re also here to support our sister nurse.”
Prior to sentencing, Murphey’s family members testified as to the painful toll the tragic medication mixup has taken on them, but they all expressed that the victim wouldn’t want Vaught to go to prison.
“Knowing my mom, she wouldn’t want her to serve jail time,” said Murphey’s son, Michael. “Mom was a very forgiving person.”
Carol Davis is the Nursing Editor at HealthLeaders, an HCPro brand.