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AP explores implications of nurse’s conviction for medical error

RaDonda Vaught, a former Vanderbilt University Medical Center nurse charged with in the death of a patient, listens to the opening statements during her trial at Justice A.A. Birch Building in Nashville, Tenn., Tuesday, March 22, 2022. Vaught was charged with reckless homicide for accidentally administering the paralyzing drug vecuronium to 75-year-old Charlene Murphey instead of the sedative Versed in December on Dec. 26, 2017. Vaught admitted the error as soon as she realized it, and the state medical board initially took no action against her. Prosecutors say Vaught made multiple errors that day and “recklessly ignored” her training. (Stephanie Amador/The Tennessean via AP, Pool)

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Nashville, Tennessee, reporter Travis Loller elevated coverage of a nurse’s trial by reporting the larger implications of the woman’s conviction for accidentally administering the wrong medication to a patient who subsequently died.

Other news outlets focused their coverage solely on the trial of RaDonda Vaught, on trial for giving a patient at Vanderbilt University Medical Center a medication that proved fatal, but Loller realized the case’s potential impact on health care workers and how they respond to mistakes.

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Chandra Murphey wipes away tears while giving testimony about her mother-in-law, Charlene Murphey, in a Nashville, Tenn., courtroom, March 22, 2022, during the trial of RaDonda Vaught, who accidentally administered a fatal dose of medication to Charlene Murphey. – Stephanie Amador / The Tennessean, Pool via AP

While juggling trial coverage, Loller’s further reporting found that Vaught’s prosecution touched a nerve. Experts told her that pursuing the case against Vaught could backfire, leading doctors and nurses who make mistakes to cover them up. They also told her about “Just Culture,” a movement within the health care field to learn from such mistakes and make systemic improvements.

As the trial ended with Vaught’s conviction, Loller obtained an interview with her and learned new details, exclusive to AP, about the nightmare Vaught had experienced since her mistake. It turned out Vaught lived in the same small town near Nashville as the 75-year-old woman who had died. Vaught shared a poignant story about a chance encounter in a store there that gave Loller the perfect ending for her evocative, beautifully written story,grounded in solid reporting.

Loller’s enterprising story clearly resonated with readers in a way the spot trial coverage could not, leading AP in pageviews for the day and scoring perfect reader engagement.

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