August 19, 2022

ElksGolf

Travelling Tomorrow

Interview with influencer Nurse Erica on RaDonda Vaught’s prosecution and the state of health care in the US

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The pandemic has laid bare the state of class relations in the United States and health care workers have come to the forefront of the growing movement of workers opposing the miserable conditions under which they have to labor. The conviction of former Vanderbilt nurse, RaDonda Vaught, galvanized this movement as nurses across the country rose with one voice challenging the legal system that intended to punish her as a criminal for a medication error that tragically led to the death of a patient. 

Nurse Erica, an influencer and nurse advocate, became a critical figure in Vaught’s defense and mobilization of nurses. The World Socialist Web Site had an opportunity to speak with her on this topic and many more.

Benjamin Mateus [BM]: Good morning, Erica. Thank you for accepting the interview. Can you tell us what you do and how you become a nurse influencer? And are you still working in health? 

Nurse Erica [Erica]: I do still work. I work in hospice and palliative care now. I’m a nurse leader as they call it. I’m a program director, but still do hands-on patient care from time to time. I’m still within the nursing world constantly.

Nurse Erica

I became an influencer or an advocate kind of by accident at the beginning of the pandemic over two years ago. I started posting videos on TikTok, which I just downloaded at the beginning of COVID because everybody did. And I have a kind of unique perspective because I am not just a nurse, but also work in management.

There was really no one at that time willing or able to speak. And, as you know, because nursing is unfortunately very retaliatory. So, I just garnered a lot of attention and following. And it has really sort of exploded since then. I have always really done nurse advocacy, but it had always been local, but now it is just much bigger.

BM: I think that nurses do need strong advocates. There has been a tremendous movement taking place among health care workers. The pandemic has forced nurses to recognize that their work has assumed a political dynamic that cannot be suppressed anymore. 

Nurses stand on one side of the fence while the health care systems are on the other side. The issue early on surrounding the personal protective equipment (PPEs) was volatile. Nurses were donning garbage bags and having to share masks and risking catching COVID, getting sick, dying, and bringing it to their families. Watching the deaths of thousands of patients as they work themselves into the ground day in and out without an end in sight. Meanwhile the CDC and White House is telling them the virus is not airborne, they can take off their masks if they are vaccinated—the constant lying and disinformation. The experience of the last two years has been transformative.

Erica: I agree with you. Many nurses are hurting and are looking for answers. I could certainly tell you a lot of stories about PPE and the pandemic. And I think that the movement behind RaDonda is in response to these.

BM: You have been very involved in her [RaDonda Vaught] case. Do you mind speaking on it? [Vaught was recently sentenced to three years’ probation for the death of Charlene Murphey in 2017 who died due to a medication error. Initially charged and convicted for criminal negligence and elderly abuse, Vaught faced significant jail time. However, the movement of nurses behind the case was an important factor in the leniency granted to the former Vanderbilt nurse.]

Erica: Yes, heavily! I knew about it when it first happened. This was back in 2017. Like everyone else, I was appalled just hearing about it on the surface. I remember distinctly saying back then ‘She needs to lose her license’ not knowing any of the other details and kind of followed it on and off. 

It took three or four years before it even went in front of the state board of nursing. When it finally went to the board about a year or so ago, I covered that in depth and did a deep dive into the whole case. And I really learned just how much Vanderbilt was at fault. And that is not to say that she was not at fault because she certainly was.

But she was also set up for failure. That whole investigation really changed my tune. And I knew from that point that she would be facing criminal charges in March. I really wanted to go and attend her trial. But as I am in Las Vegas and this was in Nashville, it was not convenient. 

About a day or two before it was set to start, I resigned myself to not being able to go because I did not have money to travel and stay for an undetermined period. You do not know how long a trial is going to last. Still, I half-jokingly posted a video on social media saying, “I remember that case. God, I’d love to go there and report on it and tell you guys. Does anyone want to sponsor me?” 

And wow! They [the nurses] did like immediately. It was amazing and overwhelming. Twelve hours later I was on a plane on my way to Nashville and I met RaDonda the first morning before court. I was just in the hallway outside of the courtroom and was introduced to her. And I really thought that I was going to be a fly on the wall, sitting in the back corner, did not want to disrupt anything, just wanted to take notes, and observe. 

But that is not what happened. What did happen was that I got to know RaDonda very well, actually, and ended up spending the night at her farm. Spent quite a bit of time with her and her close friends. And from the beginning of the week, where I was one of only two nurses that attended to the end of the week, where it was a nationwide story and reporters everywhere—it was quite the rollercoaster. So, I stayed and attended the entire trial and kept in touch with RaDonda after leaving.

I proceeded to collect all the position statements on her verdict, which there were thousands from various hospitals, health care organizations, nursing unions, nursing schools, all the nursing associations, et cetera. Almost all of them put out a position statement and the vast majority were positive in favor of RaDonda and against the criminal prosecution of nurses. 

Nurses at the rally for RaDonda Vaught in Tennessee May 13 [Photo: WSWS]

I painstakingly collected all of those, put them together in a binder and sent it to the judge for the sentencing so that would hopefully be considered. And I traveled back to Nashville for the sentencing. I was one of two nurses that planned and arranged the sentencing day event, because we knew that nurses from around the country would be showing up. We planned a big event in the park right across from the courthouse. We had speakers and we live streamed the sentencing that day. 

I am still in touch with RaDonda. I just texted her this morning and that is a general overview. 

BM: How is she doing? 

Erica: She is doing okay. You know, obviously relieved that she is not facing prison time. Of course, that was the biggest concern, right? But I think people have kind of lost sight of the fact that she is still a convicted felon. Many people are like, “Okay, good! She didn’t have to go to prison,” like it is over and done with. Well, no. Not only is she on probation for three years, but she is also a convicted felon. For example, she cannot leave the state if she wanted to. 

She has a farm and part of having a farm typically involves having maybe one or two firearms to fend off against snakes or hawks that can attack your livestock. But she had to give up all of her firearms. 

And there is also the, I can assume, just horrible embarrassment and shame having to disclose each time that you are convicted of elder abuse, that you are a convicted felon and, of course, being stripped of your entire profession, which is no easy degree to obtain, right? The BSN [Bachelor of Science in Nursing] degree is widely accepted as the most arduous baccalaureate level degree that there is. 

You put in all this work and time and you are doing something you love and you are just no sooner getting comfortable—because she was at about the two-and-a-half-year mark as a nurse when the incident with Charlene Murphey happened—and now you cannot work as a nurse ever again.

She is still dealing with huge ramifications, even though she has avoided prison time. But she is very strong and resilient and doing as well as can be expected.

BM:  Speaking about Vanderbilt and the Nashville District Attorney (DA), why do you think they went after her?

Erica: The DA, in my opinion, went after her to make a name for himself. He was running for reelection. The timing cannot be overlooked. Apparently, he has a history of doing this with other high-profile cases in the past, using it to boost his own image or what not. These are cases that typically would not go to trial were it any other DA. But he has a history of strategically pushing these headline grabbing cases to the forefront to further his career. 

BM: But why didn’t they go after Vanderbilt [University Medical Center – VUMC]? If I correctly understand, the issue of just culture has been around for more than 20 years, to prevent these blame game scenarios. From the beginning, RaDonda has been straight about what took place. 

She admitted her mistake about overriding the Pyxis [automated medication dispensing system], which was commonplace, and administering vecuronium instead of versed. When she asked to write up the timeline of events, they told her not to put anything down in the chart. They fired her a week later. Meanwhile, Vanderbilt misled the medical examiner’s office the next day essentially saying that Charlene Murphey died of natural causes. They then settled with the Murphey family with the agreement that they would not go to the press with their story. 

Almost nine months later, only after an anonymous tip to CMS [Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services] that led to an investigation that exposed all of it. And the only thing VUMC had to do was submit their corrective actions to CMS and they were scot-free. I mean, not one executive, not one health administrator was convicted let alone fired from their position. 

Erica: Not only did overriding the Pyxis happen several times during Murphey’s two-day admission before her death, but it was happening for every patient at VUMC for several weeks. It was common practice at that time for up to about two months.

They were even given emails and memos stating, “You have to override, because nothing is interfacing [with the electronic patient charting].” They were in the process of switching to Epic patient electronic charting system. Epic was not interfacing with their Omnicell-Pyxis automated medication at the time. And so, they were told they had to override something like 70 percent of all patient medications. Even the intravenous fluids were being overridden. This was commonplace. And they had no other choice. Now that is clearly a system-wide failure, right? 

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