NASHVILLE, Tenn. – A former Tennessee nurse convicted in the 2017 death of a patient due to an inadvertent medication swap was sentenced Friday to serve three years probation and will serve no jail time.
RaDonda Vaught, a former nurse at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, had been found guilty in March of two charges, criminally negligent homicide and abuse of an impaired adult, after a medication error contributed to the death of 75-year-old Charlene Murphey in December 2017.
Vaught received a diverted sentence on Friday, meaning that if she meets the terms of her probation, the charges can be wiped from her record down the road.
A lengthy back and forth over the laws related to diversion took up a portion of the morning sentencing hearing. In the end, Davidson County Criminal Court Judge Jennifer Smith ruled Vaught was eligible for the program on both counts.
“This was a terrible, terrible mistake,” Smith said. “And there have been consequences to the defendant.”
Vaught shook as Smith read out the sentence.
On the first floor of the Justice AA Birch Building in Nashville, applause broke out in an overflow room where a livestream of the hearing was played all day.
Across the street, cheers went up from the crowd, many themselves health care professionals, that gathered in the park to watch and wait for the sentence.
The case ignited debate among the medical community regarding issues with medical errors and concern over the nurse being held criminally liable in Murphey’s death.
Hundreds of supporters and nurses from across the nation descended on Nashville Friday to rally for her. For weeks, nurses, labor unions and others have urged the court not to give Vaught prison time.
Vaught, who injected Murphey with the wrong medication, took responsibility for her actions immediately after and in each interview about the circumstances.
She did so again on Friday, speaking for the first time in court.
“Saying I’m sorry does not seem like enough but you deserve to hear that and know that I am very sorry for what happened,” Vaught told the Murphey family, who sat quietly and nodded along.
Vaught then addressed Murphey’s death. “When Ms. Murphey died, a part of me died with her,” she said.
She said it was not easy to stand before the Murphey family, knowing what they have gone through over the past four and a half years, and ask for the court’s leniency.
But Vaught said she is no longer a nurse and does not pose a threat to the public.
“This sentencing is bound to have an effect on how they proceed both in reporting medical errors, medication errors, raising concerns if they see something they feel needs to be brought to someone’s attention,” Vaught said. “I worry this is going to have a deep impact on patient safety.”
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Murphey fell ill on Christmas Eve 2017 and was diagnosed with a subdural hematoma at Sumner Regional Medical Center before being transferred to Vanderbilt.
Her condition appeared to improve and she was moved out of the highest ICU level, but doctors ordered she receive a PET scan to look for the cause of the brain bleed before she could be released.
But Murphey was claustrophobic and, needing to lie still for the scan, was prescribed a sedative, Versed or midazolam.
Vaught had been working as a “help-all” nurse in the ICU and was asked to retrieve the medication and administer it to Murphey where she was waiting in the scan area.
Vaught attempted to retrieve the medication. But when she was unable to find it she disengaged a safeguard allowing access to more powerful drugs. Vaught accidently pulled vercuronium, a paralyzing agent, from the cabinet and injected Murphey with the drug.
By the time the error was realized, the patient suffered cardiac arrest and partial brain death. Murphey died Dec. 27, 2017.
Soon after Murphey’s death, Vanderbilt settled a civil lawsuit with the family.
Vaught has taken criticism for her failure to catch the mistake at several points before Murphey was injected and for leaving Murphey in the care of scan technicians and not personally monitoring her vitals after giving the medication. However, prosecutors agreed there was no evidence she intended to kill Murphey.
Vaught was investigated by the nursing licensing board in the months after Murphey’s death and was not at the time recommended to lose her license or be suspended.
But nearly a year after the event, an anonymous tip, a surprise inspection and state and federal investigations led to threatened sanctions for VUMC and a criminal indictment for Vaught. After going before the nursing board last year, Vaught was stripped of her license.
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District Attorney Glenn Funk stands by the decision to prosecute.
Health care professionals have spoken out with the worry the case will deter other nurses from reporting errors for fear of possibly outsized consequences.
But the case was about the actions of one individual, Funk said after the trial.
“Now, with this conviction she can never get her license back. That is the outcome Charlene Murphey’s family wanted. They wanted justice for Charlene Murphey and that is what our office achieved for them,” Funk wrote in a March statement.
Murphey’s family had largely avoided commenting on the case publicly, but released a statement in March. In court Friday, the family spoke about the pain and hurt they have gone through since Murphey’s death.
Murphey’s son, Michael, and two of her daughters-in-law, Rhonda and Chandra, gave tearful testimonies, through which Vaught also cired.
“Just the hurt I have watched my family go through is horrible. It’s absolutely horrible,” Rhonda Murphey said. “And I try to be strong for them but at times it’s hard.”
Both Michael and Chandra said Charlene Murphey would not have wanted jail time for Vaught, eliciting applause and cheers from supporters outside the courthouse and a group in the courthouse’s overflow room.
Chandra Murphey, however, said she has never heard an apology from Vaught. Vaught’s crying intensified with those words.
Follow reporter Mariah Timms on Twitter @MariahTimms