A Tennessee nurse was recently on trial for reckless homicide after an error of administering a medication killed a woman.
Last week, the criminal case of 38-year-old RaDonda Vaught, a nurse at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee, who injected a patient with a powerful paralytic drug rather than a mild sedative in December 2017, concluded with a criminal conviction. Vaught was convicted of gross neglect of an impaired adult and negligent homicide last Friday after a three-day trial in Nashville, which gripped nurses across the country. Vaught faces three to six years in prison for neglect and one to two years for negligent homicide as a defendant with no prior convictions, according to sentencing guidelines. She will be sentenced in May.
About a year after the death of 75-year-old Charlene Murphey, an anonymous tip was placed that informed state and federal officials about the fatal medication mistake. At the time, the medical center had already reached a settlement with the patient’s family and had fired Vaught.
The nurse was later hired at another Nashville hospital.
Criminal charges were filed in February 2019, and the state revoked Vaught’s nursing license in July of last year.
Right after Christmas in 2017, Murphey was being treated for bleeding in the brain at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.
Murphey was conscious and alert when she was brought to the Vanderbilt hospital’s radiology department for a PET scan. The patient told a technician that she was anxious about being in the imaging machine because of her claustrophobia. Murphey asked for a sedative. A doctor prescribed a dose of midazolam — known by the brand name Versed — which is commonly given to patients before procedures to relieve anxiety and calm them.
The nurse was unable to locate Versed in an automatic dispensing cabinet, so she used an override mechanism to type in “VE,” according to court documents. She picked the first drug that came up: vecuronium, which is a powerful relaxant that works by blocking the signals between nerves and muscles. Vaught gave the drug to Murphey and left her alone to do other work. About a half hour later, Murphey was found unresponsive. The drug stopped her breathing. Emergency measures failed to resuscitate her, and she died after being removed from life support.
Vaught’s attorney said that the criminal charge is “completely unfathomable.”
“This sets a terrible precedent,” he said at the time of her arraignment. “It is patently unfair to charge a nurse with a criminal offense for something that was nothing more than a mistake.”
However, documents filed by prosecutors say that the nurse made 10 separate errors, including overlooking multiple warning signs that she had the incorrect medication. Court records state that Vaught would have had to look directly at a label reading “WARNING: PARALYZING AGENT” before injecting Murphey with the drug.
In the first day of the trial, a Tennessee Bureau of Investigation Special Agent showed the jury a vial of vecuronium and emphasized the warning labels on the vial that it’s a paralytic.
There is also a system pop-up message and another layer or warning that says you’re accessing a paralyzing agent.
A Vanderbilt University Medical Center anesthesiologist and critical care physician was also called to the stand and testified that at first, he was worried Murphey’s brain bleed had resumed, which caused her to lose consciousness. The physician said Vaught told him that she’d mistakenly given Murphey vecuronium. And he explained that he later told the Murphey family about the potential medication mix-up. The doctor also described what happens when an individual is administered vecuronium without sedation or a ventilator. He told the court the drug paralyzes the body and suppresses breathing. He noted that it’s essential when on a vent, but deadly when not.
While the American Nurses Association said that the criminalization of medical errors could have a chilling effect on reporting and process improvement, the Code of Ethics for Nurses states that nurses are to be held accountable for individual practice errors.
Vanderbilt negotiated an out-of-court settlement with Murphey’s family that requires them not to speak publicly about the death or the medication error.
The FDA receives more than 100,000 reports every year related to medication errors. Medication errors can occur in pharmacies, hospitals, and patient homes. One in five Americans has experienced a medical error while receiving medical treatment. The most common dispensing errors are:
• Dispensing an incorrect medication;
• Dosage strength or dosage form;
• Miscalculating a dose; and
• Failing to identify drug interactions or contraindications.
Medical professionals can be held responsible for medication mistakes. If you or a loved one has suffered harm due to a medication error, contact an experienced medical malpractice attorney at Buchanan Firm in Michigan for a free consultation.
Our firm proudly serves people all across Michigan, including major cities like Grand Rapids, Muskegon, Detroit, Lansing, Holland, St. Joe, and Ann Arbor, and rural towns such as Lowell, Ada, Fremont, Newaygo, Grand Haven, Rockford, and Cedar Springs. We will meet you after-hours, at home or in the hospital to accommodate you.
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