Health workers protest criminal conviction of nurse in Tennessee trial

Hundreds of health professionals gathered outside a Nashville courthouse on Friday to protest the conviction of a former Tennessee nurse who faces up to eight years in prison for accidentally causing the death of a patient.

RaDonda Vaught was found guilty in March of wrongful death and gross neglect of a disabled adult after accidentally administering the wrong medication.

The maximum sentence is unlikely given her lack of previous offences. A presentation report rated her risk of reoffending as “low.” Vaught faces three to six years in prison for gross neglect and one to two years for manslaughter for criminal negligence; so at the very least, the judge could give her a three-year suspended sentence.

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Opposition to criminal prosecution of nurses

The fact that she is facing criminal charges has become a rallying point for many nurses who are already fed up with the poor working conditions exacerbated by the pandemic. The crowd outside listened to the sentencing over loudspeakers and cheered as some of the victim’s relatives said they didn’t want a jail sentence for Vaught.

“Because she knew my mom like my mom was and all that, she wouldn’t want her not to serve a prison sentence. That’s just Mom, Mom was a very forgiving person,” Michael Murphey told the court.

Some have left bedside nursing for administrative positions, while others have left the profession altogether, as the risk of going to jail for a mistake has made nursing unbearable. Wearing purple T-shirts that read “#IAmRaDonda” and “Seeking justice for nurses and patients in a BROKEN system,” they listened to speeches from other nurses and supporters.

Aleece Ellison traveled from Texas to join them. She had been an emergency room nurse for 14 years and said she burst into tears when Vaught was found guilty.

“Never in my 14 years have I felt so helpless,” she said. “This could be me.”

Ellison said Friday’s outcome could determine whether she remains in nursing. She said she came to Nashville to “let the world know that criminalizing a mistake, an honest mistake, is not the direction we want to go.”

Janie Reed, who ran over from Memphis, said she became a nurse practitioner several years ago because “the bed got dangerous. … There were never enough nurses’.

“I don’t normally do things like this,” she said of the protest. “I’m just so passionate about it. Nurses are going to jail and more people are going to die because they don’t want to report their mistakes.” Vaught reported her mistake as soon as she realized what she’d done wrong.

The sentencing comes a day after International Nurses Day, and Jason Anderson, of Orlando, was one of the nurses who came to Nashville Thursday, straight from a march for better working conditions in Washington DC.

Conditions for nurses have been deteriorating for years, “but it was COVID that opened our eyes,” he said.

Vaught, 38, injected the paralyzing drug vecuronium instead of the sedative Versed into 75-year-old Charlene Murphey on December 26, 2017. Vaught admitted she made several mistakes leading up to the lethal injection, but her lawyer argued that Vanderbilt University Medical Center’s systemic problems were at least partially to blame.

The state’s expert witness argued at trial that Vaught violated the standard of care expected of nurses. Other than getting the wrong drug, she didn’t read the drug’s name, didn’t notice a red warning on the top of the drug, and didn’t stay with the patient to check for an adverse reaction, nurse legal counsel Donna Jones said.

Leanna Craft, a nurse educator in the neurological intensive care unit where Vaught worked, testified that at the time, it was common for nurses to ignore the system to get medication. The hospital had recently updated an electronic registration system, which led to delays in the collection of medicines. There was also no scanner in the imaging area where Vaught could scan the medication against the patient’s ID bracelet.

The jury found Vaught not guilty of reckless murder. Murder by negligence was a minor offense covered by the original charge.

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