The nursing crisis has found a scapegoat: A former Nashville nurse whose mistake at work became a criminal charge

Five years ago, RaDonda Vaught made a mistake.

She’s a nurse, so her mistake had a major consequence.

In 2017, Vaught accidentally administered a paralyzing drug to a patient, Charlene Murphey, when she meant to give her a prescribed sedative instead.

Charged with reckless homicide and gross neglect of an impaired adult, Vaught’s trial started on March 21, 2022. The nursing community was outraged that she was facing years in prison for something any of them could have done, especially as the pandemic exacerbated institutional issues of understaffing and overwork.

The American Nurses Association (ANA) predicts about 500,000 nurses will retire in 2022, creating a shortage of about 1.1 million nurses, when factoring in the many who quit the industry throughout 2020 and 2021. Is Vaught’s case the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back?

“A long-lasting negative impact on the profession”

Medication accidents have previously resulted in fines or professional consequences, but Vaught’s case is the first that has led to a criminal charge.

At trial, Vaught’s attorney argued that her error was not hers alone, but also indicative of greater structural issues, dishonesty, and disorganization of her employer, Vanderbilt University Medical Center. For her part, Vaught admitted her mistake at trial but also argued it was not a crime.

Both ANA and Tennessee Nurses Association (TNA) argue that criminalization of this kind of nursing mistake is dangerous.

“The nursing profession is already extremely short-staffed, strained, and facing immense pressure—an unfortunate multiyear trend that was further exacerbated by the effects of the pandemic.” They added that Vaught’s case “will have a long-lasting negative impact on the profession.” 

Nurses across the nation have demonstrated their concern regarding this case, as shown by the petition with over 100,000 signatures calling for clemency for Vaught.

But on March 25, the jury convicted Vaught of gross neglect of an impaired adult and negligent homicide. The jury did not find Vaught guilty on the charge of reckless homicide.

Vaught faces three to six years of prison time for her conviction on the gross neglect charge and one to two years for criminal negligent homicide.

“A terrifying precedent”

Health care workers are outraged and taking to Twitter.

Ashley Bartholomew wrote on Twitter that this verdict will only lead to medical accidents becoming less reported since nurses will be afraid to be penalized for their honesty as Vaught was. In a viral Twitter thread, she calls it a “terrifying precedent” and says the system that pressures nurses to overwork themselves leads to accidents.

Other nurses, including Olivia Morgan, add that this precedent will prompt even more people to leave the profession. In a field that is already struggling with hiring and retention, the hospital sector could risk losing more staff if medical mistakes are treated with the same severity that Vaught’s case was.

Doctoral student Veronica Pasha tweeted out that this issue is not just about Vaught but nurses everywhere who have been let down by their profession.

Many nurses tracking the case point out that the Vaught trial is emblematic of the sector’s desire to find a scapegoat rather than create meaningful change.

While the Nashville district attorney’s office released a statement claiming that the verdict is “not an indictment against the nursing profession,” nurses are skeptical that this case won’t drastically change the way medical mistakes are treated.

By the time of Vaught’s sentencing on May 13, 2022, even more burned-out and fed-up nurses could be hanging up their scrubs and out the door.

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