A former nurse whose drug error killed a patient in Tennessee was sentenced Friday to three years in probation, ending a case that raised concerns among healthcare workers for fear that medical errors would be criminalized.
The nurse, RaDonda Vaught, apologized to the relatives of the 75-year-old victim, Charlene Murphy, who was injected with a deadly dose of the paralyzing drug Vecuronium instead of Versace at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. According to court documents, a brain injury occurred on December 26, 2017.
Mrs Murphy was scheduled to have a PET scan that day and sought medication to control her anxiety, a lawyer for Mrs Watt said.
Saying “I’m sorry” doesn’t seem to be enough, “said Mrs. Watt, 38, who broke down in tears as she told her family at the time of sentencing. “But you deserve to hear it. You know, I’m sorry to hear that. “
Miss. Vaught, who was convicted in March of serious negligence in the murder of a disabled adult and negligent murder, was also issued a judicial diversion, which would revoke his criminal record if he successfully completed the trial.
“The crime was committed in a medical system,” Davidson County Criminal Court Judge Jennifer Smith said during the sentencing. “It was not motivated by any intent to break the law, but through supervision and extreme negligence and carelessness, as the jury concluded. The accused also immediately admitted responsibility. He did his best to rectify the situation at the time of his confession. “
Mrs Watt’s conviction has shocked nurses across the country, who have complained of fatigue due to working conditions during the epidemic and the lack of endless staff at the hospital. Her case was seen as another threat to the profession – one that could have a chilling effect on patient care if nurses are more reluctant to report wrongdoing.
Ms Watt said in March that the jury’s decision in her case “would have a greater impact on the nursing community and healthcare as a whole.”
The American Nurses Association agreed, saying in a statement in March that it was “deeply saddened by the detrimental effects of criminalizing this verdict and honest reporting of the error.”
On Friday, the association said it was “grateful to the judge for his humility in sentencing.”
“Unfortunately, medical errors can and do occur, even among skilled, well-meaning, and vigilant nurses and healthcare professionals,” the association said.
The Davidson County District Attorney’s Office, which tried the case, did not immediately respond to a request for comment Saturday. Prosecutors did not oppose the probation on Friday.
“We are extremely pleased and relieved by the outcome of the sentence,” said Peter Strians, Mrs Vat’s lawyer.
Mrs Murphy’s son, Michael Murphy, told the court on Friday that “knowing my mother, the way my mother was and the things she did, she would not want to see”.
“It’s just mom,” he said. “Mom was a very forgiving person.”
The Associated Press reports that Mrs. Murphy’s husband wanted Miss Watt to serve her prison sentence.
As he waited for the judge to hear his sentence, Mrs. Watt apparently shuddered and took a deep breath. After the sentencing, as the others left the courtroom, he put a tissue over his eyes, put his head on the table and cried.
Outside the court, purple-clad nurses gathered in support and cheered, Nashville News Channel 5 reported.
Speaking to reporters in March, Mrs Watt said what happened in 2017 was “something that will always be with me.”
“Any time you take care of a patient and you have something that binds you, you don’t – good or bad – you don’t forget it as a nurse or as a good healthcare provider,” he said.
Mr Strians argued that Mrs Watt’s mistakes were partly due to systemic problems at the hospital, such as communication problems with the pharmacy department.
But prosecutors argued that his mistakes were criminally negligent. According to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, he ignored the medical treatment on a computer and chose the first drug on the list (paralyzer vecuronium) because he could not find the Versed drug typed “VE”.
He then fails to respond to “many ‘red flags,” according to the report: Vecuronium comes in powder form, as opposed to liquid versus, and has a red cap on the vecuronium that says “Warning: paralyzing agent.”
Miss. Vaught later admitted to investigators that he was “confused with something” at the time and that the drug should not be overloaded because it was not an emergency, according to the report. Ms Vaught eventually lost her nursing license.
Eric Knutsen, a professor of medical malpractice law at Queens University in Ontario, Canada, said on Saturday that he did not blame nurses for their concerns, especially during an epidemic.
Healthcare workers are accustomed to negligence cases where patients seek financial compensation, he said. Criminal trials, however, are rare and “personal feeling” because, unlike other negligence cases, the potential value is time in prison.
“Before a district attorney’s office can think about bringing a criminal charge, one has to think, ‘Yes, we have a reasonable shot here to convict this person,'” Mr. Knutsen said.
Given the opportunity to be convicted, the district attorney probably believed that Mrs. Watt’s mistakes were particularly “serious and preventable,” she said.
It is possible that prosecutors wanted to send a message and “prevent behavior in the workplace that could cause injury or murder,” Mr Knutsen said.
“I think it’s going to be a very, very rare, single event,” he said. The prosecutor, he added, sent a clear message: “Nurses, be careful.”