Deadly Mistakes Shouldn’t Come With The Job

Joe Ramlet, opinions editor

In 2017, RaDonda Vaught—a nurse at the time—accidentally gave her 75-year-old patient, Charlene Murphey, a fatal dose of vecuronium, a paralyzer, instead of Versed, a sedative. Vaught claims that it was an honest mistake, but she was convicted late last month of two felonies and now faces up to eight years in prison. In late March the Tennessee jury, which included a career nurse, returned guilty verdicts on charges of criminally negligent homicide and gross neglect of an impaired adult after just four hours of deliberations. Clearly, these jurors felt beyond a reasonable doubt that Vaught was liable for her actions—and inactions—as a professional healthcare provider.

As a nurse, one of her duties was to administer medications prescribed by a doctor. Nowadays, medications are often dispensed through automatic machines that are supposed to have safeguards. However, these can be overridden, as in Vaught’s case. When she was unable to find Versed in the computerized list at first, she overrode the software and dispensed the much more serious vecuronium. Thinking it was Versed, she effectively euthanized Murphey and went on with her work.

Many nurses and others disagree with the verdict reached by the jury. In an era of hospitals and clinics being overcrowded and understaffed, many healthcare workers can see themselves in Vaught’s shoes. Working 10, 12 or sometimes 15-hour shifts with never ending alarms from machines galore, one could certainly become desensitized to their surroundings and slip up. Nurses have taken to social media and circulated petitions calling for Vaught’s clemency, echoing her defense that it was a mistake and things like this come with the job. Some have even quit their profession—fearing a similar situation in the future might leave them facing time behind bars.

I have to side with the jury on this one. As members of the public, you and I will never know the whole story. But I like to think that they were fair and impartial in their administration of justice. At a deeper level, I fail to accept the “honest mistake” argument or that it “comes with the job.” When you or I go to the emergency room or visit a healthcare clinic, we expect to be seen by highly-trained, licensed professionals that use the latest technology and research to provide the best care possible. Being given a supersized dose of general anesthesia doesn’t fall into this category, at least in my eyes.

We should expect better. Indeed, it’s time for professionals in all areas of public life to be held accountable. Here in Minnesota, a jury convicted Kim Potter of manslaughter in the shooting death of Daunte Wright—it’s no different. We, the public, place expectations of professionalism and service on police officers—and trust they will be upheld. When they’re not, whether through an accident or an intentional act, the responsible party must be brought to justice. Daunte Wright is no longer alive today because of the fatal error Kim Potter made, just as Charlene Murphey is no longer alive because of Vaught’s deadly mistake.

The prosecutor in Vaught’s case said that her conviction is “not an indictment against the nursing profession or the medical community.” Rather, it’s about her individual actions and inactions. While I agree, I believe that this can be the starting point for a discussion—and concrete changes—for these professions. Yes, individuals need to be held accountable. But, just as we need broader criminal justice reform, for example, nurses should not be so stressed and tired that they give the wrong medication. I implore our government and industry leaders to reimagine how we can better support our public servants—who in turn, can better support you and me.