Nicole Hester / AP
Emma Moore felt cornered. At a community health clinic in Portland, Ore, the 29-year-old nurse practitioner said she felt overwhelmed and less trained. Coronavirus patients flooded the clinic for two years, and Moore struggled to keep going.
Then the bet became clear. On March 25, in a Tennessee courtroom about 2,400 miles away, former nurse Radonda Bhatt was convicted of two felony counts and now faces up to eight years in prison for a serious drug offense.
Like many nurses, Moore wondered if this could be hers. He had made medication errors before, though not so severely. But what will happen next? In the epidemic-era healthcare pressure cooker, another mistake was felt to be inevitable.
Four days after Vaught’s verdict, Moore resigned. He said the verdict contributed to his decision.
“It’s not worth the chance or the possibility,” Moore said, “if I’m in a situation where I’m set to fail.” In the wake of Vaught’s trial – a rare case in which a healthcare worker is being criminally prosecuted for a medical error – nurses and nursing organizations have condemned the verdict through thousands of social media posts, shares, comments and videos. They warned that the consequences would spread through their profession, frustrating and undermining the status of nurses already stretched by the epidemic. In the end, they say, it will make healthcare worse for everyone.
Statements from the American Nurses Association, the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses, and the National Medical Association all stated that the VAT suffix set a “dangerous precedent.” Linda Aiken, a professor of nursing and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, says that although Vott’s case is an “outlier,” it will make nurses less likely to be wrong.
“One thing that everyone agrees on is that it will have a damp effect on reporting errors or near misses, which will have a detrimental effect on security,” Aiken said. “The only way you can really learn about the flaws in these complex systems is for people to say, ‘Oh, I almost gave the wrong medicine because …'”
“Well, now no one will say.”
Fear and anger over the Vaught case has spread among nurses on Facebook, Twitter and Reddit. Videos with the hashtag “#RaDondaVaught”, a video platform increasingly popular among medical professionals, have received over 47 million views. Proponents of her case have been working to make the actual transcript of this statement available online. And thousands joined a Facebook group in May, planning to gather in protest outside Vaught’s sentencing hearing.
Ashley Bartholomew, 36, a Tampa, Fla., Nurse who followed the trial via YouTube and Twitter, echoed the fears of many others. Nurses have long felt compelled to work in “impossible situations” with increasing responsibilities and staff shortages, he said, especially in hospitals that work with lean stuffing models.
“The big reaction we are seeing is that we are all acutely aware of how badly the epidemic has exacerbated existing problems,” Bartholomew said. “To set a precedent for criminal charges [for] An error will only make it worse. “
Vaught, who worked at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, was convicted of the death of Charlene Murphy, a 75-year-old patient who died in 2017 from a drug overdose. Murphy was given a dose of sedative, Versed, but Vaught accidentally withdrew a powerful paralyzer, Vecuronium, from an automated drug dispenser cabinet and gave it to Murphy.
Prosecutors argued that Vaught ignored many obvious signs that he had withdrawn the wrong medication and had not observed Murphy after giving him a fatal dose. Vaught owned the error but said it was an honest mistake – not a crime.
Some of Vaught’s colleagues support the suffix. Scott Shelp, a nurse in California, with a small YouTube channel, posted a 26-minute self-described “unpopular opinion” that VAT deserves to be served while in prison. “We need to be on each other’s side,” he said, “but we can’t defend the irresistible.”
Shelp said he would never make the same mistake as VAT and “wouldn’t do any skilled nurse.” Concerned neo-hippies and their global warming, i’ll tell ya.
“In any other situation, I can’t believe – including the nurse – that anyone would take ‘I didn’t mean to’ as a serious defense,” Shelp said. “Punishment for any wrongdoing is justice.”
Vaught was acquitted of reckless murder but pleaded guilty to one lesser charge, criminal misconduct for murder as well as extreme negligence of a disabled adult. As anger spread across social media, the Nashville District Attorney’s Office defended the conviction, saying in a statement that it was “not a complaint against the nursing profession or the medical community.”
Office spokesman Steve Hayeslip said: “This has always been the case with a single person who has committed 17 heinous acts and inappropriate murders of an elderly woman,” said Steve Hayeslip, a spokesman for the office. “The jury found that Vaught’s activities were far below the standard of protocol and care, which the jury (which included a longtime nurse and another healthcare professional) returned a guilty verdict in less than four hours.”
The office of Tennessee Governor Bill Lee has confirmed that he is not considering a waiver for Vaught, despite collecting about 187,000 signatures on the Change.org petition as of April 4.
Lee’s spokeswoman Casey Black said the governor relies on the parole board to recommend a pardon for defendants outside the death penalty case, which only occurs after sentencing and a board investigation.
But the controversy surrounding Vaught’s case is far from over. As of April 4, more than 8,200 people had joined a Facebook group that planned to hold a protest rally outside the courthouse on May 13 when his sentence was announced. Event planners include Tina Visant, host of “Good Nurse Bad Nurse,” following a podcast Vaught’s case and opposing her trial.
“I don’t know how Nashville is going to handle this,” Vicente said of the protests during a recent episode of Bhatt’s trial. “A lot of people are coming here from all over.”
KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that creates in-depth journalism about health issues. It is an editorially independent operating program KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation).