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Ex-nurse sentenced to probation in patient medication death

RaDonda Vaught (Nicole Hester/The Tennessean via AP, Pool)
RaDonda Vaught (Nicole Hester/The Tennessean via AP, Pool)

A former Tennessee nurse whose medication error killed a patient has been sentenced to three years of probation.

The move came as hundreds of healthcare workers rallied outside the courthouse, warning that criminalising such mistakes will lead to more deaths in hospitals.

A state judge imposed the sentence on RaDonda Vaught after she apologised to relatives of the victim, Charlene Murphey, and said she will be forever haunted by her mistake.

Vaught was found guilty in March of criminally negligent homicide and gross neglect of an impaired adult after she accidentally administered the wrong medication.

Nurse’s Error Tennessee
People demonstrate outside the courthouse (Mark Humphrey/AP)

Nashville Criminal Court Judge Jennifer Smith said Vaught would receive judicial diversion, a way for first-time offenders to have their charges dropped and their records expunged after successfully completing probation.

Prosecutors had argued against diversion, although they were not opposed to probation.

The crowd of nurses outside protesting cheered, cried and hugged after hearing the sentence.

The relief came after the healthcare workers spent hours in the sun and cling onto every word of the judge’s lengthy sentencing explanation for several minutes, some linked in a chain with hands locked.

The fact that she faced any criminal penalties at all has become a rallying point for many nurses who were already fed up with poor working conditions exacerbated by the pandemic.

Nurse’s Error Tennessee
RaDonda Vaught apologises to the family of Charlene Murphey (Nicole Hester/The Tennessean via AP, Pool)

The crowd outside listened to the sentencing through loudspeakers and cheered when some of the victim’s relatives said they would not want jail time for Vaught.

“Knowing my mom the way my mom was and stuff, she wouldn’t want to see her serve no jail time. That’s just Mom. Mom was a very forgiving person,” Michael Murphey told the court.

Charlene Murphey’s husband, however, does want her to serve a prison sentence, relatives testified.

Vaught apologised to the family in court, saying words will never fully express her “remorse and sorrow”.

“I’ll be forever haunted by my role in her untimely passing,” she said. “She did not deserve that.”

Vaught also apologised that discussion of systemic hospital problems and the danger of criminalising mistakes by healthcare workers took some attention away from Charlene Murphey.

“I’m sorry that this public outpouring of support for me has caused you to continue to live this over and over,” she told them. “No-one has forgotten about your loved one, no-one has forgotten about Ms Murphey. We’re all horribly, horribly sorry for what happened.”

Vaught reported her error as soon as she realised what she had done wrong.

Vaught, 38, injected the paralyzing drug vecuronium instead of the sedative Versed into 75-year-old Charlene Murphey on December 26, 2017.

Vaught admitted making several errors that led to the fatal injection, but her defence attorney argued that systemic problems at Vanderbilt University Medical Centre were at least partly to blame.

The state’s expert witness argued at trial that Vaught violated the standard of care expected of nurses. 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, nurse legal consultant Donna Jones said.

Leanna Craft, a nurse educator at the neurological intensive care unit where Vaught worked, testified that it was common for nurses at that time to override the system to get drugs.

The hospital had recently updated an electronic records system, which led to delays in retrieving medications. There was also no scanner in the imaging area for Vaught to scan the medication against the patient’s ID bracelet.

The jury found Vaught not guilty of reckless homicide. Criminally negligent homicide was a lesser offense included under the original charge.

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