I have undergone more surgeries than anyone I know. I am also among those who are lucky enough to have discovered that the hero nurses become your best friend when things go sour. Because of my affection for those in the healing arts, it seems like I have worried about RaDonda Vaught for a long time. She is the Vanderbilt nurse who was just convicted on criminally neglect homicide charges and the abuse of an impaired adult.
The truth is she made a horrible mistake five years ago and one of her patients, Charlene Murphey, was killed as a result. The horror-stricken RaDonda, 33 at the time, had gone to an automatic drug dispenser in the hospital’s neuro ICU for some Versed, a sedative, and got instead a dose of vecuronium, which caused Mrs. Murphy to quit breathing and to die. The patient had been admitted with a brain bleed.
The trial was watched by nurses and physicians all across America and in many foreign countries. Negligent homicide carries an eight-year sentence and the country’s largest nursing groups pleaded for mercy. There was certainly not criminal intent, according to those who protested the verdict, and reasoned nothing would be gained by sending Vaught to jail. But the smoking gun was, of course, the dead patient.
A national company that makes scrubs uniforms, Figs, placed full page ads in the New York Times, USA Today, and the Nashville Tennessean criticizing the criminal charges and Vaught herself said, “Knowing what I know now - even if the jury finds me guilty, even if Judge (Jennifer) Smith decides that prison time is the appropriate sentencing for this and it's the maximum amount of time - I have zero regrets about telling the truth," Vaught told The Tennessean in March.
Speaking before she was sentenced on Friday, Vaught apologized to Murphey’s family that the discussion of systemic hospital problems and the danger of criminalizing mistakes took some attention away from the death of their loved one. "I’m sorry that this public outpouring of support for me has caused you to continue to live this over and over," she told them. "No one has forgotten about your loved one, no one has forgotten about Ms. Murphey. We’re all horribly, horribly sorry for what happened."
In a scene reminiscent of the Bible’s King Solomon, Judge Smith realized the accidents sometime occur despite all that is done to avoid them and sentenced Mrs. Vaught to three years of suspended probation with no jail time. The decision was accepted with grace by over 200 protesters outside the court and was a monumental victory for fairness in the law, as well as fairness in the inexact practice of medicine.
Mrs. Murphey’s family had repeatedly said they did not wish for the nurse to do jail time but hopes the case would bring attentions to safeguards that would lessen further innocent mistakes.
Curiously, I’ve asked myself several times since RaDonda’s story unraveled what would have been my reaction under similar conditions. I have endured perhaps a dozen surgeries at Vanderbilt and I would pray that my loved ones wouldn’t dare press charges if an earnest mistake caused me to croak. There has never been the first time I have been hospitalized that a bunch of great human beings weren’t trying to help me. I recognize that foremost.
I know Vanderbilt nurses are as good as the world-class medical center that they warmly reflect every day. Sure, you’re going to run into some intern at 5:30 a.m. who is late and in too great a hurry but - as I have said before - forget the little people in life. A good floor nurse is the MVP of any hospital to the paying crowd; it's just that hospitals don’t like to admit it.
And from all I’ve seen and read, I’ll write a letter of recommendation for RaDonda Vaught this very morning. Hers is forgivable and, make no mistake, it is the agonizing trials of life we must endure that create a champion. Nurse Vaught can treat me in any ICU anytime.
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VIDEO: Former VUMC nurse RaDonda Vaught sentenced to 3 years supervised probation CLICK HERE.
* -- Nurses travel to Nashville for Vaught sentencing CLICK HERE.