RaDonda Vaught sat with tissues clenched in her hand, her head looking straight down at the defense table.
Vaught — a former Vanderbilt University Medical Center nurse — is withstanding trial five years after a patient died in her care. A Davidson County Grand Jury indicted Vaught on charges of impaired adult abuse and reckless homicide. If convicted, she could face up to 10 years in prison. The case emerged after Vaught gave the wrong drug to Charlene Murphey in 2017, when Murphey underwent a PET scan to check a brain bleed.
Tennessee Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Ramona Smith, who specializes in Medicare and Medicaid fraud, said she started investigating 11 months after the incident because of a tip they received. Initially, the agency didn't investigate further because health care companies aren't required to report incidents to the TBI. No reports had been filed.
During her court appearance, Agent Smith held up a clear plastic bag, which possessed vecuronium. The drug is used to suppress breathing for intubated patients, which is the drug at the center of this case. Throughout the investigation, Smith interviewed several Vanderbilt employees, including Vaught. The interview's audio was recorded and played in court.
During the recording, Vaught told the TBI investigator she could tell the difference between Versed and vecuronium under "normal circumstances." She relayed during the recording there's more she could and should have done.
"I probably just killed a patient," she said during the recording.
But Vaught said she was distracted and talking to someone else when she pulled the drug.
"My mistake caused a patient essentially to die," she said in the recording. "Am I going to jail? Am I going to lose my job? I was pretty sure I was going to lose my job if I could say the least. The conversation was pretty direct. There were parts of the administration process that should have been followed. Because I didn't follow them and didn't follow Vanderbilt's policy, they were going to have to let me go."
After Vanderbilt fired Vaught, she explained in the recording that she took time off from nursing and tended to her Bethpage farm.
"I wasn't sure about going back to work. I was told when they let me go that there would be some sort of investigation into my license. She gave me a copy of the letter that had been turned over to the Tennessee Board of Nursing. It was a copy of the termination letter. I was told there would be some investigation into my termination and in that time I was free to return to work. I didn't know what to do and I was hesitant to go back. I didn't know if I would be in a good place."
Vaught said she didn't hear from the nursing board for several months.
"I have good days and bad days," she said in the recording. "Ultimately, I can't change what happened. The best I can hope is that mistake can't be made again. There's nothing that can be said that is going to take away what I did to her or her family. People make mistakes. To err is human."
Smith said she appreciated Vaught being honest and "owning up to it."
"Error is error," Smith said. "We are all human."
It's not clear whether Vaught will testify on the stand, though her attorney Peter Strianse hinted she might appear.
"RaDonda Vaught has no agenda, but she has a voice and you will hear it," he said. "She was an excellent, compassionate, caring nurse. This was a systemic problem at Vanderbilt, not a RaDonda Vaught problem.”
Day two of the trial will start Wednesday at 9 a.m.