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No jail time for Tennessee nurse convicted of fatal drug error 2022

A former Tennessee nurse convicted of two felony counts for a fatal drug error, Radonda Watt, whose trial became a rallying cry for nurses fearing criminalizing medical mistakes, does not need to spend any time in prison. Will be

Davidson County Criminal Court Judge Jennifer Smith gave Watt a judicial twist on Friday, meaning her sentence will be dropped if she completes three years of probation.

Smith said Watt’s drug mix resulted in a “terrible loss” to the family of the patient who died and “whatever happens today can undo that loss.”

“Miss Watt is well aware of the gravity of the crime,” said Smith. “She credibly expressed remorse in this courtroom.”

The judge said that Watt had no criminal record, has been removed from the health care setting, and will never practice nursing again. The judge also said, “It was a terrible, terrible mistake and the defendant has suffered.”

As the sentence was read, hundreds of purple-colored protesters cheered from the crowd who had gathered outside the courtyard to protest Watt’s prosecution.

Hundreds of people gather near the Davidson County Courthouse in Nashville.  The protesters wear purple shirts that read, "Nurse strong.  I stand with Radonda."
Hundreds of protesters, many of whom are nurses from across the country, gathered outside the Davidson County Courthouse in Nashville, Tennessee, as a show of support for former nurse Radonda Watt. He listened to a livestream of the sentence and each time witnesses said that Watt should not go to prison for his fatal medical error.(Blake Farmer for KHN)

Watt, 38, a former nurse at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, faced up to eight years in prison. In March she was convicted of criminally negligent manslaughter and grievous neglect of an impaired adult for the 2017 death of patient Charlene Murphy, 75. Murphy was prescribed Versed, a sedative, but Watt inadvertently gave him a lethal dose of vecuronium, a powerful paralyzing agent.

Charlene Murphy’s son, Michael Murphy, testified at Friday’s sentencing hearing that his family is devastated by the sudden death of his parents. He said she was “a very forgiving person” who did not want her to serve any jail time, but her widower father wanted Watt to get “the maximum sentence”.

“My dad suffers from it every day,” said Michael Murphy. “He goes to the cemetery three to four times a week and sits there and cries.”

Watt’s case is different because medical errors — even fatal ones — are usually within the purview of state medical boards, and cases are almost never prosecuted in criminal courts.

The Davidson County District Attorney’s office, which did not advocate any specific punishment or oppose probation, described Watt’s case as an indictment of a negligent nurse, not the nursing profession as a whole. Prosecutors argued in the lawsuit that Watt ignored several warning signs when he caught the wrong drug, failing to notice Verseed is a liquid and vecuronium is a powder.

Watt admitted his mistake after the mix-up was discovered, and his defense focused largely on the argument that an honest mistake should not be considered a crime.

During the hearing on Friday, Watt said she was forever changed by Murphy’s death and was “open and honest” about her error in an attempt to prevent future mistakes by other nurses. Watt also said that there was no public interest in serving her a prison sentence because she couldn’t possibly commit the crime again after her nursing license was revoked.

“I have lost so much more than my nursing license and my career. I’ll never be the same person again,” said Watt, her voice trembling as she began to cry. “When Ms. Murphy died, a part of me died with her.”

At one point during his statement, Watt confronted Murphy’s family, apologizing for both the fatal error and how the public campaign against his prosecution forced the family to recoup their loss.

“You don’t deserve it,” said Watt. “I hope it doesn’t turn out to be people forgetting your loved one. … I think we’re just in the middle of systems that don’t understand each other.”

Prosecutors also argued in the trial that Watt bypassed security measures by turning the hospital’s computerized medicine cabinet into “override” mode, which made it possible to withdraw drugs not prescribed to Murphy, including vecuronium. Other nurses and nursing experts have told KHN that overrides are routinely used in many hospitals to get to drugs quickly.

Theresa Collins, a Georgia travel nurse who followed the trial closely, said she would no longer use the facility even if it delayed patient care, after prosecutors argued it proved Watt’s negligence. .

“I’m not going to override anything beyond basic saline. I don’t feel comfortable doing it anymore,” Collins said. “When you criminalize what health care workers do, it kicks up the whole ballgame. replaces it.”

Vout’s prosecution drew condemnation from nursing and medical organizations, who said the case’s alarming precedent would worsen nursing shortages and make nurses less aware of mistakes.

The case also garnered a lot of backlash on social media as nurses streamed the trial via Facebook and rallied behind Watts on TikTok. That outrage prompted Friday’s protest in Nashville, which drew supporters from Massachusetts, Wisconsin and Nevada.

A crowd of protesters is seen holding signs which read, "I am Radonda." Most of the crowd is wearing purple clothes.
Danielle Threat (left), a nurse and friend of Radonda Watts, stands next to her mother, Alex Threatt, at a rally in support of Watts outside the Davidson County Courthouse in Nashville, Tennessee, before Watt’s sentencing.(Brett Kellman/KHN)

Among those protesters was David Peterson, a nurse who marched in Washington, D.C. on Thursday to demand health care reforms and safer nurse-patient staffing ratios, then went to Nashville at night and slept in his car to meet Watt’s sentence. be able to oppose. He said the events were naturally intertwined.

“What is being protested in Washington, because of poor staffing in hospitals is being practiced in places, exactly the same thing happened with Radonda. And it puts every nurse at risk every day,” Peterson said. “It’s cause and effect.”

Tina Vincent, a Knoxville nurse and podcaster who organized the Nashville protest, said the group had spoken with Tennessee lawmakers about legislation to protect nurses from criminal prosecution for medical errors and that “in every state Similar bills will follow.

Vincent said he would carry on with the campaign, even if Watt was not jailed.

“He shouldn’t have been charged in the first place,” Vincent said. “I wish he didn’t serve jail time, but the sentence doesn’t really affect where we go from here.”

Janice Peterson, a recently retired ICU nurse from Massachusetts, said she participated in the protests after recognizing the all-too-familiar challenges from her own nursing career in Watt’s case. Peterson’s fear was a common saying among nurses: “It could have been me.”

“And if it was me, and I looked out that window and saw 1,000 people supporting me, I would feel better,” she said. “Because for every one of those 1,000, there are probably 10 more who supported him but couldn’t come.”

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