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As a nurse in the US faces prison for a deadly error, her colleagues worry: Could I be next?

Four years ago, inside the most prestigious hospital in Tennessee, nurse RaDonda Vaught withdrew a vial from an electronic medication cabinet, administered the drug to a patient, and somehow overlooked signs of a terrible and deadly mistake.

The patient was supposed to get Versed, a sedative intended to calm her before being scanned in a large, MRI-like machine. But Vaught accidentally grabbed vecuronium, a powerful paralyser, which stopped the patient’s breathing and left her brain-dead before the error was discovered.

Vaught, 38, admitted her mistake at a Tennessee Board of Nursing hearing last year, saying she became “complacent” in her job and “distracted” by a trainee while operating the computerized medication cabinet. She did not shirk responsibility for the error, but she said the blame was not hers alone.

“I know the reason this patient is no longer here is because of me,” Vaught said, starting to cry. “There won’t ever be a day that goes by that I don’t think about what I did.”

If Vaught’s story followed the path of most medical errors, it would have been over hours later, when the Board of Nursing revoked her RN license and almost certainly ended her nursing career. But Vaught’s case is different: This week she goes on trial in Nashville on criminal charges of reckless homicide and felony abuse of an impaired adult for the killing of Charlene Murphey, a 75-year-old patient who died at Vanderbilt University Medical Center on the 27 December 2017.

Prosecutors do not allege in their court filings that Vaught intended to hurt Murphey or was impaired by any substance when she made the mistake, so her prosecution is a rare example of a health care worker facing years in prison for a medical error. Fatal errors are generally handled by licensing boards and civil courts. And experts say prosecutions like Vaught’s loom large for a profession terrified of the criminalization of such mistakes — especially because her case hinges on an automated system for dispensing drugs that many nurses use every day.

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Source: Kaiser Health News, 22 March 2022


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