In a case that has been closely watched by the medical and nursing community, a former nurse who accidentally injected a patient with the wrong drug and killed her was found guilty of criminal charges, including negligent homicide.
RaDonda Vaught, the nurse involved in the incident, faces up to eight years in prison for the mistake. The error occurred after Vaught’s patient, citing claustrophobia, requested a sedative before being taken for a PET scan. The patient was prescribed Versed to calm her nerves for the procedure. Rather than pulling Versed from the automated medication cabinet in use at the hospital, Vaught retrieved a paralytic called vecuronium.
The nature of such a paralytic is that it paralyzes everything in the patient’s body, including their respiratory system. As such, vecuronium is only given to patients that have been intubated. But that was only the first step in the cascade of failures that led to Vaught’s patient’s death. While Versed is found in the cabinet as a liquid, vecuronium is a powder that must be reconstituted before it can be administered. In addition, the medication comes with a bright red label that warns of its dangers.
Vaught made no attempt to conceal her error and admitted to it the moment she realized what she had done, going so far as to tell law enforcement officials who became involved with the case that she “probably just killed a patient.” In testimony before the Tennessee Board of Nursing, Vaught told members of the board that she knows “the reason this patient is no longer here is because of [her].” Vaught added that “there won’t ever be a day that goes by that I don’t think about what I did.”
Those within the medical community warn of the precedent set by Vaught’s conviction. At a time when medical practitioners are being assaulted while trying to help dying COVID patients and are leaving the profession in droves after being stretched beyond their breaking points by a seemingly ungrateful public, the American Nurses Association says that the verdict “will have a long-lasting negative impact on the profession.” A statement issued by the group notes that “the nursing profession is already extremely short-staffed, strained, and facing immense pressure – an unfortunate multi-year trend that was further exacerbated by the effects of the pandemic.” The group urges more “effective and just mechanisms” for dealing with “inevitable” medical errors than the “criminalizing” of “honest reporting of mistakes.” Patient safety expert and director of the Center for Communication and Health at Northwestern University Bruce Lambert told AL.com that he had grave concerns over the criminal prosecution of an honest medical error. “This will not only cause nurses and doctors to not report medication errors,” he said, “it will cause nurses to leave the profession.”
After the trial, Vaught said in an interview that she hopes that the verdict will give her patient’s family closure. “Ms. Murphey’s family is at the forefront of my thoughts every day,” said Vaught. “You don’t do something that impacts a family like this, that impacts a life, and not carry that burden with you.”