What do you want to be when you grow up?
Whether that was your sincere answer or your please-stop-talking-to-me-I-don’t-even-know-what-I-want-for-dinner answer, “doctor” is a popular, widely acclaimed occupation. Especially with the COVID-19 pandemic, healthcare workers, particularly nurses, have become cherished, celebrated heroes.
However, all that glitters is not gold.
RaDonda Vaught, a former nurse in Vanderbilt University Medical Center, was arrested in 2019 and charged for “reckless homicide” and “gross neglect” for administering the incorrect medication to Charlene Murphey, her patient, in late December 2017. Instead of a sedative, Vaught injected Murphey with a strong paralytic. Before the proper action could be taken, Murphey was declared dead.
First and foremost, I’d like to remind you that I am not a doctor; I am simply a sophomore student. Yet, as an aspiring doctor, I hope to provide some insight to the situation.
There has been debate about whether Vaught should be convicted guilty for her actions. Some people, mostly non-medical workers, argue that, given she administered the incorrect drug, then she should be held accountable. On the contrary, some people, mostly nurses and doctors, have advocated for Vaught, arguing that, unfortunately, mistakes in healthcare are inevitable given that humans will experience fatigue and complacency.
Yes, both sides have valid points. But no, this is a futile argument. There is a clear asymmetry of information. Sure, from a citizen’s perspective, you could argue that as a nurse, it was Vaught’s responsibility to ensure that all her patients are well-cared for. She was supposed to administer the proper medication. She wasn’t supposed to make mistakes. Since she made a mistake, she should be punished accordingly. Yet, people who have worked in the healthcare system, especially nurses, tend to have a few skeletons in their closet that occasionally rattle their conscience. Even I, someone who has shadowed multiple physicians, can never understand the trauma and stress that comes from balancing on the tightrope between life and death. We treat our doctors with pride and appreciation, but there’s a very heavy burden that follows the letters D and r.
My intention isn’t to caricaturize both parties; there are obvious exceptions. However, what do people expect to achieve from this debate? One side has unrealistic, yet moral expectations for a nurse, while the other side knows from experience that heavy is the head the wears the crown. Neither side will truly understand the other.
The significance of this debate doesn’t come from any of the current discussions; rather, the significance is completely omitted from most discussion. An entire country, including some of the most brilliant minds, are arguing about a troublesome, questionable, clumsy, inefficient, imperfect, compassionate, misunderstood single individual.
Anyone can have an opinion about a nurse’s responsibility, but what do you truly know about the U.S.’s healthcare system?
U.S. healthcare is one of the most expensive healthcare systems in the world, with $4.1 trillion delegated to health spending, yet our health outcomes are atrociously disproportionate to that hefty sum. Among industrialized countries, the U.S. ranks last in maternal mortality ratio, 33rd of 36 in infant mortality ratio, top three countries in cases of mental illness, with nearly 31.1 million people not covered by health insurance. As the leader of the free world, we fail to even provide the bare necessities to our citizens.
Our healthcare system is, in one word, overwhelmed. One article stated that Vaught’s incident occurred in 2017, well before the pandemic, citing a time that was “absent such crisis-induced corner-cutting.” Yes, the pandemic has exacerbated the demand in healthcare, causing the system to become overwhelmed. Yet, you are severely mistaken if you think that the healthcare wasn’t already overwhelmed well before the pandemic.
Vaught is one loose screw amongst many parts in this corroded, tarnished, vandalized with very expensive “duct-tape solutions” healthcare system machinery. Should we be concerned that a nurse incorrectly administered a drug? Absolutely. However, the implications of how everyone’s reflexive response was to villainize this one individual rather than reflect on the defects in our troublesome, questionable, clumsy, inefficient, imperfect, compassionate, misunderstood healthcare system is even more worrisome.
Is this a worker’s failure in the system or is this a system that failed to work?
We immediately blame Vaught because it’s much easier to villainize a single individual than challenge American’s intricate, convoluted healthcare system. Framing Vaught as the example, the scapegoat for future healthcare workers who make a mistake isn’t a sustainable solution. Downstream solutions are futile if we don’t address the upstream causes. We need to reinforce our medical education system, reform hospital training, develop more sustainable workloads, and innovate efficient hospital management systems.
So, what do you want to be when you grow up?
If your answer is still “doctor,” then you must be prepared to work in one of the most corrupt, inefficient systems in America. When, not if, you make a mistake, whether if you administer the wrong drug or proceed with a fatal surgery, you must be ready to carry the weight of that mistake. When there’s a medical breakthrough, we tend to celebrate the lead, veteran physician’s expertise. Yet, when it’s a medical catastrophe, we tend to blame the pawn in the scheme. Neither decision is accurate; one person is never the problem nor solution. Although it may seem like a Sisyphus-like effort, where I am simply one individual against centuries of medical practice, we need to be aware of who controls the narrative and consider the Gestalt of our healthcare system, dedicating our efforts to more upstream, meticulous reforms.
Linda Cao is a Trinity sophomore. Her column runs on alternate Thursdays.
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.
Linda Cao is a Trinity senior and an opinion managing editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.