Former Vanderbilt Nurse Pleads Not Guilty in Medical Error Death

Alicia Ault

February 22, 2019

A former nurse at Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC) in Nashville, Tennessee, has pleaded not guilty to reckless homicide after giving a patient the wrong medication.

Nurses around the country, in particular the online nursing community, Show Me Your Stethoscope, have rallied in support of RaDonda Vaught, RN.

In a statement issued the day before Vaught's February 20 arraignment, the American Nurses Association offered its condolences to the deceased patient and her family and acknowledged that "the full facts and circumstances of this incident are still developing." 

However, the statement added, "the criminalization of medical errors could have a chilling effect on reporting and process improvement."

The 35-year-old Vaught was indicted in early February on charges of reckless homicide and impaired elder abuse in the death of Charlene Murphey, a 75-year-old patient who had been admitted in 2017 for a subdural hematoma, according to The Tennessean .

Murphey required a full-body scan and a doctor prescribed Versed to help with her claustrophobia. When Vaught typed "VE" into the automated dispensing system, the first drug that appeared was vecuronium.

Murphey was given that powerful neuromuscular blocker, lapsed into unconsciousness, and could not be revived.

Placing Blame

In a November 2018 statement, VUMC said it had determined that Vaught was to blame. "In reviewing the event at the time it happened, we identified that the error occurred because a staff member had bypassed multiple safety mechanisms that were in place to prevent such errors," spokesman John Bowers told Nashville Medical News.

The hospital said it had immediately alerted the family to the medical error. After an investigation, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) threatened to pull VUMC's ability to participate in the federal health programs. CMS later accepted a corrective action plan from VUMC.

Prosecutors contend that Vaught is liable because she overrode the dispensing system's built-in safeguards, The Tennessean reported.

In a news conference just after the plea, Vaught's attorney claimed that the system was as much to blame as the nurse, according to The Tennessean .

Vanderbilt has stopped commenting. "Because this matter now involves criminal court proceedings we won't be commenting at this time," John Howser, VUMC's chief communications officer, told Medscape Medical News.

Vaught, meanwhile, has created an online fundraising page, partly at the suggestion of Show Me Your Stethoscope leadership, she said. The page was created February 8 and had raised more than $76,000 at press time.

Editor's note: This article has been revised to correct the characterization of vecuronium. It is a nondepolarizing neuromuscular blocker, not an anesthetic.

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