RaDonda Vaught: Victim, felon, or both?


For 4 and a half years, I have followed the RaDonda Vaught medication error that led to the unfortunate death of a human being. I am not alone. Nurses across the country have followed the case with anxiety and fear, knowing a guilty verdict might have the potential to challenge basic tenets of care.

According to Kaiser Health News, nurses are “raging and quitting” following the announcement of a guilty verdict for two felonies: criminally negligent homicide and gross neglect of an impaired adult.

Thousands of nurses have claimed they could arrive in Nashville, Tenn., on May 13, the day Ms. Vaught is to be sentenced, to protest the conviction. Others have stated they believe justice is being conducted, as their sympathies lie with the victim, Charlene Murphey, who died 12 hours after being unable to draw breath, paralyzed from the inadvertent dose of vecuronium given intravenously by her nurse.

How should we feel as clinicians? What does this guilty verdict mean for nurses across the country as Ms. Vaught waits to receive a sentence that could imprison her for up to 8 years, according to sentencing guidelines?

My belief is that it is understandable to feel passionately about this case, including what it could mean to an era of “just culture” that nursing organizations have promoted. The concept of just culture looks at medication/nursing errors as opportunities for growth to avoid future errors, not as scenarios for punitive action. With the guilty verdict in Ms. Vaught’s case, nurses (and facilities) fear that nurses will avoid coming forward after mistakes, leading to cover-ups and a culture perspective.

Will nurses be hesitant to report errors (especially significant errors) that lead to patient harm? Will we fear retribution and reprisal for being truthful?

I believe that Ms. Vaught’s criminal case has changed little in the political landscape of caregiving. Before you let loose with a loud expletive (or two), hear me out.

When a patient dies from unintentional harm, someone must be held accountable. Society needs a scapegoat, and unfortunately, excrement slides downhill to the lowest common denominator, which may be the nurse. Initially, Ms. Vaught was contacted by her state licensing board (Tennessee) and informed there would be no professional repercussions for her mistake. That decision did not hold. She was later indicted criminally for the death of her patient. She also had her nursing license revoked.

Why? The hospital where she worked was threatened with Medicare reprisal if systemic issues were not addressed following the incident; for example, a bar-coding device was not available for Ms. Vaught to use prior to administering the vecuronium, and paralytic agents were stored unsafely in a Pyxis MedStation, readily available for any nurse to obtain via override.

In fact, the number of overrides performed by all nurses caring for Ms. Murphey in the days leading to her death was alarming, leading reviewers to assume that time to acquire medication for inpatients was a problem.

Ms. Vaught herself, stating the obvious on talk shows, said she should not have performed an override, that the situation was “not an emergency” and she should have taken time to check that Versed (midazolam) was available by the generic name and not the “VE” she entered as a search mechanism into the machine. She also stated she was “distracted” by a trainee assigned to her at the time.

We have all been there, feeling rushed to perform a task under stressful situations, skipping safety guidelines to sedate a patient while radiology is waiting. Someone is always on our a**, waiting to get to the next task, the next patient, the next admission, the next pseudo-emergency called nursing workload.

It never ends.

Which is why I wish to emphasize what the Ms. Vaught guilty verdict really means for nurses.

It means we must never forget that our actions have the potential to harm, even kill, our patients.

We must never forget that repercussions and reprisal may occur, whether personal guilt that may prove more damaging than the prison sentence Ms. Vaught might receive, or problems that could result if nurses attempt to hide or subvert medication issues.

In Ms. Vaught’s case, she did not document the medication that had been given to Ms. Murphey, facts the prosecution seized on to proclaim her guilt. Why? We can only guess at this point. But her claims of truthfulness need to be balanced by what occurred, and the facts are that she did not document the error after administering vecuronium that night.

When reflecting on this verdict, we need to remember a patient died, and she did so horribly, being unable to draw breath. This should never happen during our watch, ever, and as clinicians, we need to be vigilant.

In summary, protest if you believe justice has been too harsh or unfair, and that nurses may be fearful as a result. But please spare a moment to realize that someone should protest for Ms. Murphey as well. We cannot bring her back, nor can we right the system issues that may have led to her death.

But we should protest for safer systems, for improved staffing, for a need to catch our collective breaths, and a day to work and nurture patients when someone is not constantly on our a**. Only then will nurses be protected from unjust reprisal, from needing to be the lowest common denominator of guilt.

Ms. Goodman is a researcher and consultant in Libertyville, Ill. She disclosed no conflicts of interest.

A version of this article first appeared on

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