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SWFL nurses react to guilty verdicts in wrong medication death

The conviction of RaDonda Vaught in an accidental injection death has sparked fear and outrage among many nurses, who have been faced with long hours, mounting responsibilites and staffing shortages.
Nicole Hester/AP
The conviction of RaDonda Vaught in an accidental injection death has sparked fear, concern and outrage among many nurses, who have been faced with long hours, mounting responsibilites and staffing shortages.

Former Tennessee nurse RaDonda Vaught was found guilty of criminally negligent homicide and abuse of an impaired adult for giving a patient the wrong medication. The guilty verdicts were returned in a Nashville courtroom on March 25 of this year.

In 2017, Vaught administered the paralyzing drug Vecuronium to a patient before a scan, instead of the sedative Versed. The paralytic left the patient unable to breathe and left her brain dead. The female patient died in December 2017. Vaught now faces a maximum sentence of 12 years in prison for this error, and some Southwest Florida nurses fear the case will set a precedent for the criminalization of medical mistakes.

“We should all be held accountable, but the level is kind of ridiculous,” Caleb Myers, a nursing student at Florida Gulf Coast University, said. “I mean, everyone makes mistakes.”

Myers works at Fawcett Memorial Hospital in Port Charlotte where he said many nurses are already under high pressure. He worries that the threat of prosecution will only exacerbate the stress put on nurses.

“On the floor, nurses have such a huge workload already,” he said. “So, adding all that stress and anxiety is honestly going to probably make them more prone to mistakes.”

April Felton is an assistant professor in nursing at FGCU. She said she is proud of the generation of nurses coming out of her program, but she is concerned about the implications this decision could have on the future of the profession. Felton worries that the court’s decision could have far-reaching consequences for the entire medical field.

“Nurses and physicians and anybody in the healthcare industry is going to be afraid to report errors,” she said. “And I think that has implications for patient safety moving forward, quite frankly.”

Felton said that she teaches her students that it is essential to learn the correct policies and procedures and follow the standard of care in each practice. She said that this ruling creates a system in which the courts may look to punish nurses instead of allowing them to learn from their mistakes.

“Ninety-nine percent of the time these things are systematic in nature,” she said. “There's usually a problem with a process that makes it all the way down to the person making the mistake. I think it's really important that we understand what a culture of safety is, and that we practice that culture of safety so that people aren't scared to report potential errors.”

Caitlin Martinez is a nursing student at FGCU and a nurse apprentice at Golisano Children's Hospital. She said she thinks the best way to prevent accidents like Vaught’s is to establish systems that require nurses to double check medications. Martinez also said that currently many of the computer software systems that hospitals depend on are flawed, leaving room for critical errors to occur.

“I've seen a lot of people talking on social media about how these types of errors are ways to weed the good nurses out from the bad ones,” she said. “That's what nursing school is for.”

Martinez said she believes that the publicity around this situation will hurt the trust that people have in nurses and contribute to the nursing shortage that is already impacting hospitals across the state. According to a 2021 report commissioned by the Florida Hospital Association, 70% of hospitals in Florida are already experiencing critical staffing shortages.

“With this case coming out, and trust in nurses already being kind of iffy, this shortage is just going to grow,” she said. “And that's when even more mistakes are going to happen because the ratio of nurses to patients is going to increase.”

Caleb Myers said he believes that the publicity around this case has shined a light on an unfortunate, but unusual case. He said that mistakes like this are not normal in nursing, and he is concerned that people might come to believe they are.

“A lot of things went wrong in that situation, a lot of things just kind of were unlucky and lined up just right in the wrong way,” Myers said. “This is what people are going to correlate nurses with big mistakes like that, but really that's not as common as people may think.”

April Felton said she thinks that the legal precedent that this case set may serve to drive away prospective nurses.

“I think it's a wonderful job and I feel really bad that this one thing could potentially deter people from doing it,” she said. “We're known as the most trusted profession, and I think that's something to be really proud of. That's something that hopefully people will still want to be a part of.”

Myers is pursuing a career in nursing because he enjoys taking care of people, but he is one of the young nurses reconsidering the future.

“It seems like a very different profession than what it was maybe five or 10 years ago,” he said. “I still want to go into it, but it isn't necessarily what I thought it was.”

Vaught admitted that she made an error when she administered the wrong drug, but the scrutiny this case has put on nurses will reverberate throughout the entire medical field.

“Nursing is already a very high stress job, and this case has just added more stress to already stressful job in the middle of a nursing shortage,” Martinez said. “They teach us that all through nursing school that things happen, and you're supposed to report them, and there's not supposed to be any shame surrounding that.”