Former nurse convicted in elderly woman’s death after injecting her with paralyzing drug vecuronium instead of a sedative

Doctors are those who we rely on when we need medical treatment or medical assistance, but as everyone else, they are also humans and of course, they make mistakes. While every misstep is an opportunity to learn and improve, when the mistakes are made by doctors, lives can be compromised, or even lost. And that’s exactly what happened in the case of a 75-year-old woman who died after she was injected with a wrong drug.

The now former nurse, the 37-year-old R. D. Vaught, was found guilty last Friday on several charges regarding her patient’s death, an incident that happened in December, 2017. The several-year-long process finally came to its end and the sentencing hearing is scheduled for May 13.

According to the court records, the victim was elderly woman, identified as the 75-year-old C. Murphey, and she had been admitted to the Vanderbilt University Medical Center’s neurological intensive care unit in Tennessee on Dec. 24, 2017, after suffering from a brain bleed. Murphey was claustrophobic and was prescribed Versed for her anxiety two days later, as doctors ordered a PET scan to check for cancer and in an effort to determine the cause of the bleeding.

When Vaught could not find Versed in an automatic drug dispensing cabinet, she used an override and accidentally grabbed vecuronium instead. The nurse applied the wrong drug which was later determined to be the cause of the patient’s death.

According to an expert witness, the nurse violated the standard of care expected of nurses as she was obligated to read the name of the drug, she didn’t notice the red warning on the medication and she didn’t stay with the patient to check for an adverse reaction.

Another nurse, Vaught’s colleague in the same hospital, confirmed that it was common for nurses at the time to override the system in order to get drugs. As per the testimony, the incident happened soon after the hospital got their electronic system updated which caused delays in retrieving medications from the automatic drug dispensing cabinets. During the court process, Vaught admitted to making several mistakes with the medications that day, but her attorney argued the nurse was not acting outside of the norm.

While prosecutors believe the drug switch-up was unintentional, they claim Vaught’s mistake caused the elderly woman unable to breathe. The day after the incident, the 75-year-old woman died. Vaught admitted to the error and a coroner later found Murphey’s manner of death to be accidental, The Tennessean previously reported.

Assistant District Attorney Chadwick Jackson told the jury in closing arguments, “Vaught acted recklessly, and Murphey died as a result of that. Vaught had a duty of care to Murphey and Vaught neglected that. … The immutable fact of this case is that Murphey is dead because Vaught couldn’t pay attention to what she was doing.”

While Vaught was happy the court process finally came to its very end after four and a half years, she said she is concerned that the verdict with cause other providers “to be wary about coming forward to tell the truth. I don’t think the take-away from this is not to be honest and truthful.”

“I am just relieved that this portion of the process is over,” Vaught told reporters Friday. “I hope that they are also just as relieved to be moving away from this process that has been held up in the legal system for four and a half years.”

The jury found Vaught not guilty of reckless homicide, but she has been found guilty of criminally negligent homicide. Criminally neglect homicide was a lesser charge included under the original charge.

While some were happy with Vaught’s conviction, Bruce Lambert, a patient safety expert, said it was extremely concerning that Vaught was being criminally prosecuted for a medical error. “This will not only cause nurses and doctors to not report medication errors, it will cause nurses to leave the profession,” said Lambert in an interview before the verdict.

The sentencing hearing is scheduled for May 13.

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