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NASHVILLE, Tennessee (AP) — A former Tennessee nurse whose medication error killed a patient was sentenced to three years probation on Friday as hundreds of healthcare workers gathered outside the courthouse, warning that criminalizing such errors will lead to more deaths in hospitals.
A state judge imposed the sentence on RaDonda Vaught after he apologized to the relatives of victim Charlene Murphey and said she would be forever haunted by her mistake. Vaught was convicted in March of criminally negligent homicide and gross negligence of an intoxicated adult after she accidentally administered the wrong medication.
Nashville Criminal Court Judge Jennifer Smith said Vaught would receive diversion, a way for first-time offenders to have their charges dropped and their records expunged after successfully completing probation. Prosecutors had opposed diversion, although they did not oppose probation.
The crowd of protesting nurses outside cheered, cried and hugged each other after hearing the sentence. The relief came after healthcare workers spent hours in the sun and clung to every word of the judge’s lengthy explanation of the sentence, some bound in a chain with their hands locked.
The fact that Vaught, 38, faced criminal penalties became a rallying point for many nurses who were already fed up with poor working conditions exacerbated by the pandemic. The crowd outside listened to the hearing through loudspeakers and cheered as some relatives of the victim said they would not want Vaught jailed.
“Knowing my mom, the way my mom was and everything, she wouldn’t want to see her serve time in prison. It’s just mom. Mom was a very forgiving person,” Michael Murphey told the court. Charlene Murphey’s husband, however, wanted her to serve time in prison, relatives testified.
Vaught apologized to the family in court, saying words will never fully express his “remorse and sadness”.
“I will forever be haunted by my role in his untimely passing,” she said. “She didn’t deserve this.”
In assessing whether to grant Vaught diversion, Smith cited Vaught’s remorse as well as his honesty about the medication error.
Speaking ahead of her sentencing, Vaught apologized to Murphey’s family if the discussion of the hospital’s systemic problems and the danger of criminalizing mistakes had distracted from the death of their loved one.
“I’m sorry that this public outpouring of support for me has caused you to go through this again and again,” she told them. ‘No one has forgotten your beloved, no one has forgotten Mrs Murphey. We are all horribly, horribly sorry for what happened.
After Vaught was found guilty in March, healthcare workers began posting on social media that they were leaving bedside nursing for administrative positions, or even leaving the profession altogether. They said the risk of going to jail for a mistake made nursing intolerable.
Vaught supporters wore purple t-shirts reading “#IAmRaDonda” and “Seeking justice for nurses and patients in a BROKEN system” on Friday as they listened to speeches from fellow nurses and supporters. They also held a moment of silence to remember Charlene Murphée.
Aleece Ellison traveled from Texas to join them. An emergency room nurse for 14 years, she said she broke down crying when Vaught was convicted.
“Never in 14 years have I felt so helpless,” she said. “That could be me.” She came to Nashville to “let the world know that criminalizing a mistake, an honest mistake, is not a direction we want to go in.”
Janie Reed, who drove in from Memphis, said she became a nurse practitioner several years ago because “the bedside was getting dangerous. … There were never enough nurses.”
“I don’t usually do things like that,” she said of the protest. “I’m so passionate about this. Nurses are going to go to jail and more people are going to die because they won’t report their mistakes.
Vaught reported her mistake as soon as she realized what she had done wrong – injected the paralyzing drug vecuronium instead of the sedative Versed into Charlene Murphey, 75, on December 26, 2017. Vaught admitted to making several mistakes which led to the injection death, but his defense attorney argued that systemic problems at Vanderbilt University Medical Center were at least partly to blame.
Speaking at Friday’s hearing, Michael Murphey spoke about the impact his mother’s death had on the family.
“I was at work when all this happened so I couldn’t say goodbye to my mum. I couldn’t give her a hug or a kiss,” he said. “My dad suffers from it every day. He goes to the cemetery once or twice a week. He goes out and cries. He is 83 years old.”
His wife, Chandra Murphey, also testified Friday about how things were before her mother-in-law’s death.
“We used to always get together for family dinners,” she said. “We did so much together as a family, and it was over in a split second for us. We still have her Christmas presents in our attic wrapped.”
Contributors include Associated Press writer Jonathan Mattise in Nashville.
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