Op-Ed: Ex-Nurse Convicted in Patient's Death- Could This Set a Worrisome Precedent for All Nurses?

Rick Martinez RN

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Why would anybody in their right mind want to become a nurse now?

That was the question my wife asked me after hearing the verdict in this case. 

Why would I want to continue being a nurse from this point forward? That was what I said back to her.

We were talking about this: "A jury on Friday convicted former Nashville nurse RaDonda Vaught of criminally negligent homicide and abuse of an impaired adult after a medication error contributed to the death of a patient in 2017", reported The Tennessean.

My wife and I are both nurses. We both hold registered nursing (RN) licenses and have a combined 50 years of practice and experience between us. We've never heard of this happening in our half-century of caregiving before.

Not once, ever.

The conscious world already knows that nurses are the backbone of the healthcare system. We are responsible for providing care to patients and often work long hours under challenging conditions. This was all made apparent as COVID ravaged our healthcare systems and the spirit of nurses across the US.

In between fatigue, patients dying, and lack of support from leadership, many nurses chose alternate career fields.

In light of this, it is essential that nurses feel safe reporting errors they make while caring for patients. Unfortunately, this recent verdict may have sent the wrong message to nurses across the country. And as a nurse myself, I have to agree.

Ex nurse, RaDonda Vaught, was recently convicted of two felonies in the death of her patient. 

The patient was supposed to get a drug called Versed, a sedative often used to relax or calm patients. The drug was set to be administered to her before a procedure. However, Vaught removed the wrong med, vecuronium, instead. Vecuronium, or "vec," is a powerful paralyzing drug that eventually stopped the patient's breathing and caused brain death before the medication error was discovered.

Like myself, and as nurses across the US watched this saga unfold, I must say that it felt like we all were also on trial.

What has now happened is that by this verdict, the "system" has now essentially criminalized medication errors. And more than that, is it's placed a new fear in practicing nurses regarding the reporting of medication errors. 

And that might well translate into patient care suffering.

Let me now try to paint an objective picture and place my nursing sentiment aside.

The system failed her and fails nursing staff regularly

All across the US, hospitals are asking nurses to work mandatory overtime.

Especially during COVID, nurses were working in understaffed units with improper protective gear and often in unfamiliar areas. As soon as COVID "cooled" down, nurses were told to get vaccinated or not come to work. The double standard was blatantly evident then, as it is now.

In this instance, there seemed to be a series of failures on the part of the hospital and the system. Unfortunately, former nurse Vaught became the scapegoat.

Once again, saving money and cutting on efficiencies won out over patient care.

Nurses now have one more reason to work in fear

As if bullying, workplace violence, and poor staffing levels weren't enough, we now have to worry about being prosecuted for a medication error.

Most of us became nurses for the love of our fellow humans and to give back distinctly. Now, a part of us will always consider whether or not our actions, or inactions, will be subject to or risk of criminal liability. 

Nursing is now one of the riskiest professions in the US

I always thought my most significant risk came from violent patients and family members.

Never would I dream that it would come from the very system that is supposed to support us. To have our backs. 

Early on, many nurses accept that contracting infections or illnesses and getting sick from patients is part of the job. We even know that lifting patients could cause us injury on some levels. But I must offer that we never thought a medication error might result in prison time.

The prosecuting district attorney, in this case, has now made my profession one of the riskiest in the US.

But what if it was my mother who was killed?

That's a question I asked myself as I set out to write this piece.

What if the patient was my mom. What if I was sitting in that courtroom as a son who lost his mom due to a nurse's medication error. How would I feel?

It's frankly a difficult question because I am a nurse.

I know precisely what a staff nurse endures in any 12-hour shift. I have felt the things that Ms. Vaught has felt. And finally, I know the pressures of having to care for people at their best and at their worst, all while managing a dozen other medical and nursing complexities simultaneously.

Sure, I would want someone to be held accountable.

But not the nurse. At least not in this way.

The final word

This is heart-wrenching, to say the least.

An innocent patient was killed. An otherwise fine nurse may go to prison. And a new, dangerous precedent has been levied by the courts.

The mistake that Ms. Vaught made was a terrible one. An error that should have been caught, and it was negligence on her part. Of that, there is no doubt.

But, to levy criminal charges for a medication error in healthcare is one of the scariest things that any, and I mean any, licensed healthcare provider can fathom. Not only that, it will undoubtedly cause and create more harm to our profession.

We just don't know how much harm yet.

What are your thoughts? Please feel free to share in the comments.

Sources: 

The Tennessean

News Channel 5: Nashville

Yahoo Sports

The Writing Nurse

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I'm a freelance writer and a decades-long travel nurse. Writing about the travel nurse industry and healthcare.

San Antonio, TX
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