Nurses are raging and quitting after RaDonda Vaught verdict : Shots

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


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Nicole Hester/AP


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

Emma Moore felt cornered. At a community health clinic in Portland, Ore., the 29-year-old nurse practitioner said she felt overwhelmed and undertrained. Coronavirus patients flooded the clinic for two years, and Moore struggled to keep up.

Then the stakes became clear. On March 25, about 2,400 miles away in a Tennessee courtroom, former nurse RaDonda Vaught was convicted of two felonies and now faces eight years in prison for a fatal medication mistake.

Like many nurses, Moore wondered if that could be her. She’d made medication errors before, although none so grievous. But what about the next one? In the pressure cooker of pandemic-era health care, another mistake felt inevitable.

Four days after Vaught’s verdict, Moore quit. She said the verdict contributed to her decision.

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“It’s not worth the possibility or the likelihood that this will happen,” Moore said, “if I’m in a situation where I’m set up to fail.” In the wake of Vaught’s trial ― an extremely rare case of a health care worker being criminally prosecuted for a medical error ― nurses and nursing organizations have condemned the verdict through tens of thousands of social media posts, shares, comments and videos. They warn that the fallout will ripple through their profession, demoralizing and depleting the ranks of nurses already stretched thin by the pandemic. Ultimately, they say, it will worsen health care for all.

Statements from the American Nurses Association, the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses, and the National Medical Association each said Vaught’s conviction set a “dangerous precedent.” Linda Aiken, a nursing and sociology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, said that although Vaught’s case is an “outlier,” it will make nurses less forthcoming about mistakes.

“One thing that everybody agrees on is it’s going to have a dampening effect on the reporting of errors or near misses, which then has a detrimental effect on safety,” Aiken said. “The only way you can really learn about errors in these complicated systems is to have

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Why Health-Care Workers Are Quitting in Droves

The moment that broke Cassie Alexander came nine months into the pandemic. As an intensive-care-unit nurse of 14 years, Alexander had seen plenty of “Hellraiser stuff,” she told me. But when COVID-19 hit her Bay Area hospital, she witnessed “death on a scale I had never seen before.”

Last December, at the height of the winter surge, she cared for a patient who had caught the coronavirus after being pressured into a Thanksgiving dinner. Their lungs were so ruined that only a hand-pumped ventilation bag could supply enough oxygen. Alexander squeezed the bag every two seconds for 40 minutes straight to give the family time to say goodbye. Her hands cramped and blistered as the family screamed and prayed. When one of them said that a miracle might happen, Alexander found herself thinking, I am the miracle. I’m the only person keeping your loved one alive. (Cassie Alexander is a pseudonym that she has used when writing a book about these experiences. I agreed to use that pseudonym here.)

The senselessness of the death, and her guilt over her own resentment, messed her up. Weeks later, when the same family called to ask if the staff had really done everything they could, “it was like being punched in the gut,” she told me. She had given everything—to that patient, and to the stream of others who had died in the same room. She felt like a stranger to herself, a commodity to her hospital, and an outsider to her own relatives, who downplayed the pandemic despite everything she told them. In April, she texted her friends: “Nothing like feeling strongly suicidal at a job where you’re supposed to be keeping people alive.” Shortly after, she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, and she left her job.

Since COVID-19 first pummeled the U.S., Americans have been told to flatten the curve lest hospitals be overwhelmed. But hospitals have been overwhelmed. The nation has avoided the most apocalyptic scenarios, such as ventilators running out by the thousands, but it’s still sleepwalked into repeated surges that have overrun the capacity of many hospitals, killed more than 762,000 people, and traumatized countless health-care workers. “It’s like it takes a piece of you every time you walk in,” says Ashley Harlow, a Virginia-based nurse practitioner who left her ICU after watching her grandmother Nellie die there in December. She and others

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