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Guilty verdict for Tennessee nurse in case involving medical error has other nurses worried

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A stethoscope and pen are shown in a scrubs pcket.

The pandemic has already taken a toll on those in the nursing sector. Now, the criminal conviction of RaDonda Vaught — who made a fatal medication error — is another source of anxiety and frustration for nurses. Sergey Tinyakov/Getty Images

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The name RaDonda Vaught is now well known by nurses nationwide. Vaught worked in critical care at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, and she awaits sentencing May 13. Her negligent homicide conviction for a medication error is weighing heavily on a weary profession.

In Vaught’s case, she mistakenly gave 75-year-old patient Charlene Murphey a powerful paralytic injection rather than a sedative with a similar name. She reported the grievous error immediately. Murphey died.

Some nurses say they can’t help but put themselves in Vaught’s place, with many saying so publicly on social media.

“I made some mistakes that … I didn’t sleep for three days,” said Katy Greene Davis, a former trauma nurse at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, who transitioned away from the bedside.

Davis said nurses are going to be more reluctant to jump into life-and-death situations. And when mistakes happen, they’ll have every reason to clam up.

“It’s going to become ‘us-versus-them’ when it has to be — for the safety of the patient — ‘all for one and one for all,’” she said.

Vaught was initially cleared by the Tennessee Board of Nursing, but local prosecutors pressed charges. As soon as the guilty verdict was read in late March, Vaught stepped out of the courtroom and addressed nurses watching in-person and online.

“Do what you do. Do it well. And don’t let this defeat you, mentally,” she said.

While the judge in her case has wide sentencing discretion, Vaught could face jail time. Many nurses have indicated they plan to rally outside the courthouse during sentencing. Some people started an online petition asking for clemency.

Vaught’s former employer has not faced punishment, though Vaught’s defense argued glitches with a new medication dispensing system were partly to blame. Vanderbilt settled with the family and did not help with Vaught’s defense. The hospital offered no comment when asked for a response by Marketplace.

After the guilty verdict, prosecutor Chad Jackson was pressed about whether other nurses could expect criminal charges.

“This was not a case against the nursing community. This was about the actions of one individual,” he said.

But the conviction piles on top of all the pandemic-related headaches and heartaches nurses have had to endure.

Alyssa Brady of Roseville, Ohio, is one of the many nurses who donated to help pay Vaught’s legal fees. She also joined fellow nurses in Ohio establishing a nonprofit called Nurse Guardians. Part of its mission is to help fund legal defense for nurses who, like Vaught, may face jail time for a medical error.

“She’s just the first one to be thrown on the chopping block,” Brady said. “And it did light a fire under the nursing community. We are not going to stand for this.”

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