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Can medical malpractice ever be criminal?

Usually the resolution of a medical malpractice case is determined in a state or federal civil courtroom. But that is not always the end of a matter.

In fact, in particularly egregious cases where a patient dies or is incapacitated, the actions or inactions of the medical staff defendants may rise to the level where a criminal prosecution is appropriate.

Nurse facing charges in patient death

Such is the case in another southern state where a former nurse's medication error cost one elderly woman her life.

The 35-year-old nurse was employed at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee. As the nurse in charge of providing patients with their medication, she attempted to locate a 75-year-old patient's sedative, Versed.

According to the report from the Centers of Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), the agency involved in the patient death investigation, the nurse ran into difficulty. Unable to find the Versed, she then overrode the medication dispenser's safety feature. When in place, the hospital's most powerful but potentially lethal drugs remained blocked. Once she overrode the protections, however, she was able to type in the initial two letters of the drug she was seeking.

But she stopped at "VE" without typing in the rest of the letters. Unfortunately, the first drug that was referenced by the system prompt was vecuronium, a paralytic drug that keeps patients motionless during surgeries. The medication is one of the drugs used in lethal injections of death row inmates.

Patient succumbs, nurse charged

After she was given the dose of the deadly paralytic, the woman went into cardiac arrest. She suffered brain death and died within hours of the medication error after being taken off of life support.

Vecuronium paralysis typically begins in the body's small muscle of the hands and face. As it courses through the body, it eventually freezes all the muscles, including those necessary for respiration.

The Davidson County District Attorney's Office spokesperson issued a recent statement announcing that the nurse's overriding the system was key to the prosecutor's decision to charge her with reckless homicide.

In an email, he stated, "As you could tell from the CMS report, there were safeguards in place that were overridden. By the definition of ‘reckless,' the defendant's actions justify the charge."

Not the first error

The dangerous properties of the drug are known and vecuronium has a "well-documented history of causing catastrophic injuries or death when used in error."

The problem occurs with many similarly named drugs that, without proper oversight and safety protocols in place, could potentially harm many patients.

If it happens to you

Patients in hospitals are often at their most vulnerable state. They may be distraught, in pain and not in the right frame of mind to discern a change in their regular medications. This is why nurses must make sure that the medications they dispense are given to the right patients in the correct dosages.

Did a medication error happen to you — or to a loved one? Even when there are no criminal charges brought in such cases, civil justice can be sought through the Kentucky civil courts.

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