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Ex-nurse convicted of injecting patient with wrong drug gets probation

RaDonda Vaught is seen in court ahead of her sentencing in Nashville on May 13, 2022. (Nicole Hester/Pool/Tennessean/AP)

RaDonda Vaught, a former nurse in Tennessee who was convicted on felony charges for fatally injecting a patient with an incorrect drug, was sentenced to probation Friday in a case that became a rallying cry for health-care workers fearful that medical mistakes 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 medication in December 2017. Prosecutors said that instead of giving Murphey a dose of the sedative Versed, Vaught injected the patient with the powerful muscle relaxant vecuronium, which left her unable to breathe. Vaught, 38, was convicted in March of criminally negligent homicide and gross neglect of an impaired adult.

Davidson County Criminal Court Judge Jennifer Smith ruled Friday that Vaught would be granted a judicial diversion, meaning the conviction would be expunged from the records if she completed a three-year probation.

“Ms. Vaught is well aware of the seriousness of the offense,” Smith said, according to NPR, noting that the Murphey family had suffered a “terrible loss.” “She credibly expressed remorse in this courtroom.”

The judge added that Vaught, who was shaking and had broken into tears as the order was read, had no previous criminal record and would never be a nurse again.

“This was a terrible, terrible mistake, and there have been consequences to the defendant,” Smith said.

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

“She did not deserve that,” Vaught testified, reported the Associated Press. “I will never, ever forget my role in this. I don’t know what else to say that will make anything different.”

The judge’s sentencing Vaught to probation instead of prison ends a case that has galvanized health-care workers who have spoken out against poor working conditions that have only been exacerbated during the coronavirus pandemic.

Medical errors, including those that result in death, are usually dealt with by state medical boards. Lawsuits against those involved in fatal medical mistakes are almost never prosecuted in criminal court, which made Vaught’s case a matter of national interest in recent months. Protesters in purple T-shirts reading “#IAmRaDonda” celebrated outside the courthouse when the sentence was announced.

The Davidson County District Attorney’s Office argued that her indictment was a case of one careless nurse and not indicative of the nursing profession. Prosecutors did not oppose probation or seek a particular sentence in Vaught’s case.

Relatives testified that Charlene Murphey’s husband wanted Vaught to face prison, but her son, Michael Murphey, told the court Friday that he did not want the former nurse to be sent to prison.

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

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

On Christmas Eve of 2017, Murphey fell ill and was diagnosed with a subdural hematoma, an accumulation of blood on the surface of the brain. After she was transferred from Sumner Regional Medical Center in Gallatin, Tenn., to Vanderbilt, her condition improved and she was moved out of the highest level of the intensive care unit. Before she could be discharged, doctors ordered a PET scan to figure out the cause of the brain bleeding.

Since Murphey was claustrophobic, she was prescribed Versed, generically known as midazolam, a sedative that would help her lie still for the PET scan. Vaught, who had been working in the ICU, was asked to retrieve the medication and administer it to the 75-year-old patient.

But when the nurse was unable to find the sedative, she disengaged a safeguard and went into “override” mode, which allowed her access to more powerful drugs. She then mistakenly pulled out vecuronium and injected Murphey with the muscle relaxant. Vaught eventually realized the error, but Murphey had already gone into cardiac arrest and suffered partial brain death. She died the next day, Dec. 27, 2017.

While Vaught admitted she had made several errors that led to the fatal injection of the wrong drug, Strianse argued that systemic problems at Vanderbilt were at least partly the cause of the circumstances leading to Murphey’s death. The hospital settled a lawsuit with Murphey’s family shortly after her death.

Vaught was investigated by the nursing licensing board after Murphey’s death, but she did not initially lose her license or undergo suspension. That changed roughly a year later, when federal and state investigations threatened Vaught with a criminal indictment and VUMC with possible sanctions. Vaught was eventually stripped of her license 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 conviction was for Vaught never to regain her nursing license.

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

At Friday’s hearing, Strianse had asked whether prosecutors had proved that 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 her cause of death, according to WZTV. He argued that a new death certificate a year later listed vecuronium intoxication and was issued without an autopsy being performed on the body.

Vaught told the court that her sentencing was going to have a larger effect in the possible criminalization of medical mistakes.

“This sentencing is bound to have an effect on how they proceed both in reporting medical errors, medication errors, raising concerns if they see something they feel needs to be brought to someone’s attention,” Vaught told the court, USA Today reported. “I worry this is going to have a deep impact on patient safety.”

She then apologized to the family if the discussion surrounding the criminalization of medical mistakes, and the outpouring of support Vaught received from health-care workers, distracted from Murphey’s death.

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

Murphey’s family testified Friday about who the matriarch was, and how they still had “her Christmas presents in our attic wrapped” more than four years later.

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

Vaught, who cried throughout the testimonies, reiterated that she had “experienced anxiety, depression, remorse, sleepless nights” and has repeatedly replayed her mistakes.

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