RaDonda Vaught, the Tennesee nurse charged with reckless homicide, pleaded not guilty when she appeared in court on February 20. The courtroom was packed with nurses who arrived at the arraignment to support her and to express their dismay at the precedent that is being set by criminally charging a nurse for a medication error.
In December 2017, Vaught mistakenly injected Charlene Murphy at Vanderbilt University Medical Centre with the powerful paralytic drug Vercuronium which led to the patient’s death. The unfortunate incident was after she overrode the automatic dispensing system by typing in “VE” when she could not find the prescribed sedative, Versed, in the system.
Although Vaught was dismissed after the error, the incident only came under public scrutiny after it was picked up by an inspection of the medical facility by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) a year later. The criminal investigation and charge against Vaught appeared to have been based on the CMS investigation report, which also showed up numerous problems in the systems used at the hospital.
Overwhelming support from nurses
Speaking to the press after the hearing Peter Strianse, Vaught’s attorney, said that the unprecedented criminal charge sets a terrible precedent. “I’ve never seen these many people appear at an arraignment,” he added. “I think it’s a testament to Radonda Vaught how they feel about her and how they feel about the issues in the case.” He also pointed out that the State Board of Nursing had, after an extensive investigation, decided not to discipline Vaught.
One of the biggest sources of support for Vaught is Show Me Your Stethoscope (SMYS). The organization supports nurses beyond the usual role of traditional nurses’ associations, and its motto is “Nurses take care of patients, we take care of nurses. In an online poll conducted by SMYS, nearly 80% of the nurses who responded didn’t believe that Vaught should have been charged.
Janie Garner, Executive Director of SMYS, stressed in an interview after the hearing that criminally charging nurses for errors would prevent them from coming forward when they made a mistake and have a serious impact on patient safety.
She also emphasized that no nurse is exempt from the possibility of making an error. This case placed the profession on a slippery slope – even giving antibiotics late could be held against the nurse if the patient died from their infection the next day.
Garner also explained that SMYS had bullied Vaught into starting a Go Fund Me account to help cover her legal costs. To date over $82,000 has been raised towards the target of $150,000.
Jason Lee, a critical care nurse, wrote that it was deceiving to believe that locking away individuals and hurting institutions financially would end preventable hospital deaths. “Prosecuting health-care workers for errors sets a dangerous precedent: it says that to err is criminal, not human,” he wrote. “Even worse, it lets health-care systems off the hook.”
Support from ANA
The American Nurses Association issued a press statement on the day before Vaught’s court appearance. They emphasized that individual nurses should be held accountable, but that medical errors should be examined through a peer review process. This would lead to system improvements and corrective action to avoid similar mistakes in the future.
“The criminalization of medical errors could have a chilling effect on reporting and process improvement,” the ANA stressed after pointing that the complex and ever-changing health care system was high risk and error-prone.
Support Radonda and the cause
The outcome of Vaught’s case could affect all nurses. An excellent defense is essential to prevent a future surge of criminal prosecutions for medical errors. You can support RaDonda Vaught and the overall cause by donating to her Go Fund Me account. You can also add the “I Stand with RaDonda” frame, available on SMYS Facebook page, to your profile pic or even comment on the page.