Christopher Duntsch

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Christopher Daniel Duntsch
Born (1971-04-03) April 3, 1971 (age 50)
Alma materMemphis State University (BS)
University of Tennessee Health Science Center (MD-PhD)
OccupationSpine surgeon (former)
Conviction(s)February 20, 2017
Criminal chargeInjury to an elderly person
PenaltyLife imprisonment
Imprisoned atIncarcerated at O. B. Ellis Unit of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, earliest possible parole July 20, 2045

Christopher Daniel Duntsch (born April 3, 1971)[1] is a former neurosurgeon who has been nicknamed Dr. D. and Dr. Death[2] for gross malpractice resulting in the maiming of several patients and killing two of them while working at hospitals in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex.[3]

Duntsch was accused of injuring 33 out of 38 patients in less than two years before his license was revoked by the Texas Medical Board.[4] He was convicted of maiming one of his patients in 2017 and sentenced to life imprisonment.[5]

Early life and education[edit]

Christopher Duntsch was born in Montana, but spent most of his youth in Memphis, Tennessee. He is a graduate of Evangelical Christian School in Cordova, a suburb of Memphis. Duntsch initially had ambitions of playing college football, but was unable to catch on at either Division III Millsaps College or Division I Colorado State University. By the time he returned home to attend Memphis State University (now the University of Memphis), he had exhausted his eligibility. He then set his sights on becoming a neurosurgeon.[6]

Duntsch completed the MD–PhD and neurosurgery residency programs at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center,[3] and subsequently completed a spine fellowship program there as well.[7] In what proved to be foreshadowing of things to come, he was suspected of being under the influence of cocaine while operating during his fourth year of residency. Duntsch was sent to an impaired physicians program and then was allowed to return to his residency program.[8][4] Some of Duntsch's acquaintances in Memphis recalled seeing him head to the hospital for his rounds hours after using LSD and cocaine.[4] He completed his residency having participated in fewer than 100 total surgeries, a small fraction of the average of over 1000 surgeries for a neurosurgery resident.[6]

While in Memphis, Duntsch began a long-term relationship with Wendy Renee Young, whom he met at a Memphis strip club. They eventually had two children.[4]

Career[edit]

Initially, Duntsch focused heavily on the PhD half of his degree; his name appeared on several papers and patents, and he took part in a number of biotech startups. However, by the time he met Young, he was over $500,000 in debt. He decided to turn to neurosurgery, an extremely lucrative field.[4]

Duntsch moved to the Dallas area in 2010.[9] Young accompanied him; she liked the idea of returning to her hometown. He joined Baylor Regional Medical Center at Plano (now Baylor Scott & White Medical Center – Plano) as a minimally invasive spine surgeon with a salary of $600,000 per year, plus bonuses. Hospital officials believed they were getting a highly trained surgeon. He had spent a total of 15 years in training (medical school, residency and fellowship), and his resume ran to 12 single-spaced pages.[4] Early on, he left a bad impression with his fellow surgeons. One longtime vascular surgeon, Randall Kirby, recalled that Duntsch frequently boasted about his abilities despite being so new to the area.[10] Kirby also recalled that Duntsch's skills in the operating room left much to be desired; as Kirby put it, "he could not wield a scalpel."[4]

Several of Duntsch's operations at Baylor Plano ended with patients severely maimed. Collin County medical investigator Lee Passmore was left with chronic pain and limited mobility after Duntsch put a screw in the wrong place in his spine and stripped it so it couldn't be moved. Pool service company owner Barry Mongoloff was left with bone fragments in his spinal canal after Duntsch tried to pull a damaged disk out of his back with a grabbing tool; he eventually lost most of the function on his left side and requires a wheelchair.[6] Longtime friend Jerry Summers came to Plano to have two neck vertebrae fused; during the operation, Duntsch removed large amounts of muscle tissue, rendering Summers a quadreplegic. Summers later claimed that he and Duntsch used cocaine on the night before his surgery. While Duntsch passed a drug test, Baylor Plano officials were concerned enough to ask Duntsch to limit himself to minor surgeries.[4] At his next operation, Duntsch severed a major artery in patient Kelli Martin's spine during a minor back operation. Duntsch continued operating despite clear signs that Martin was losing massive amounts of blood. Martin ultimately bled to death.[10][4] Baylor Plano officials found that Duntsch failed to meet their standards of care, and Duntsch resigned rather than face certain termination. Had Duntsch been fired, Baylor Plano would have been required to report him to the National Practitioner Data Bank, which is intended to flag problematic doctors. This loophole was well-known to the medical community.[4]

Duntsch then moved on to Dallas Medical Center in Farmers Branch, where he was granted temporary privileges until hospital officials could obtain his records from Baylor Plano. However, red flags surfaced early on; nurses wondered if he was under the influence. He lasted for less than a week before administrators pulled his privileges after the death of another patient, Floella Brown, and the maiming of another, Mary Efurd.[4][7][6] He severed Brown's vertebral artery, then packed it with too much of a substance intended to stop the bleeding; she ultimately died from a stroke. A day later, he severed one of Efurd's nerve roots during spinal fusion surgery while operating on the wrong portion of her back, and left surgical hardware in her back muscles. She was left paralyzed as a result. Longtime spine surgeon Robert Henderson performed the salvage surgery on Efurd, and likened Duntsch's work on her to a child playing with Tinkertoys or an erector set.[10][4] Efurd later recalled waking up feeling "excruciating pain"; she rated it a "10-plus" on a scale of 1 to 10. Several people who were in the operating room for Efurd's surgery suspected that Duntsch might have been intoxicated; they recalled his pupils were dilated. Despite both of his surgeries at Dallas Medical Center going catastrophically awry, hospital officials were not required to report him to the NPDB; at the time, hospitals were not required to report doctors who only had temporary privileges.[4]

In December 2011, according to court proceedings, Duntsch emailed a colleague, saying, "I am ready to leave the love and kindness and goodness and patience that I mix with everything else that I am and become a cold blooded killer."[11]

Henderson later recalled that he wondered if Duntsch was an imposter, as he couldn't believe that a real surgeon would botch Efurd's surgery so badly. For instance, he noted that anyone who had taken a basic anatomy course would know that he was operating in the wrong area of Efurd's back. He called Duntsch's fellowship supervisor in Memphis, as well as the supervisor of Duntsch's residency; it was then that he learned about the incident that led him to be referred to the impaired physician program.[4]

Medical license revocation and criminal conviction[edit]

After leaving Dallas Medical Center, Duntsch received a job at an outpatient clinic named Legacy Surgery Center (now Frisco Ambulatory Surgery Center) in Frisco. While there, he damaged Philip Mayfield's spinal cord while drilling into it, leaving him temporarily paralyzed from the neck down. Mayfield was left with permanent damage in one of his legs, and frequently suffers "blinding" headaches along with nerve pain so severe that his skin peels.[4] Meanwhile, Methodist Hospital in Dallas, where Duntsch had applied for a job, reported him to the NPDB. Even after this report, Duntsch was hired by University General Hospital in Dallas in the spring of 2013. Soon afterward, he severely maimed Jeff Glidewell after mistaking part of his neck muscle for a tumor during a routine cervical fusion, severing one of his vocal cords, cutting a hole in his esophagus, slicing an artery and leaving a surgical sponge embedded in his throat.[6] Kirby was rushed in to repair the damage, and later described what he found after opening Glidewell back up as the work of a "crazed maniac." He later told Glidewell that it was clear Duntsch had tried to kill him. Glidewell was left with only one vocal cord and was partially paralyzed on his left side. It proved to be Duntsch's last surgery; University General pushed him out soon afterward.[10] Kirby then wrote a detailed complaint to the Texas Medical Board, calling Duntsch a "sociopath" who was "a clear and present danger to the citizens of Texas."[4]

Under heavy lobbying from Henderson and Kirby, the Texas Medical Board suspended Duntsch's license on June 26, 2013. The lead investigator on the case later revealed that she wanted Dunstch's license suspended while the 10-month probe was underway, but board attorneys weren't willing to go along. Board chairman Irwin Zeitzler later said that complications in neurosurgery were more common than most laymen believe, and it took until June 2013 to find the "pattern of patient injury" required to justify suspending Duntsch's license. He added that many board members found it hard to believe that a newly trained surgeon could be as incompetent as Duntsch appeared.[6] The board called in veteran neurosurgeon Martin Lazar to review the case. Lazar was scathingly critical of Duntsch's work. For instance, he upbraided him for missing the signs that Martin was bleeding out, saying, "You can't not know it and be a neurosurgeon."[4] Following the investigation, the Texas Medical Board revoked Duntsch's license on December 6. Duntsch moved to the Denver area and went into a downward spiral. He declared bankruptcy after listing debts of over $1 million. He was arrested for DUI in Denver, taken for a psychiatric evaluation in Dallas during one of his visits to see his children, and was arrested in Dallas for shoplifting.[6]

In March 2014, three former patients of Duntsch's — Efurd, Kenneth Fennel, and Lee Passmore — filed separate federal lawsuits against Baylor Plano, alleging that the hospital allowed Duntsch to perform surgeries despite knowing that he was a dangerous physician.[12] Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott filed a motion to intervene in the suits to defend Baylor Plano, citing the Texas legislature's 2003 statute that placed a medical malpractice cap of $250,000, along with the statute's removal of the term "gross negligence" from the definition of legal malice; the suit alleged that Baylor Plano made an average net profit of $65,000 on every spinal surgery performed by Duntsch.[13]

Henderson and Kirby feared that Duntsch could move elsewhere and still theoretically get a medical license. Convinced that he was a clear and present danger to the public, they urged the Dallas County district attorney's office to pursue criminal charges.[10] The inquiry went nowhere until 2015, when the statute of limitations on any potential charges was due to run out. Part of the problem was being able to prove that Duntsch's actions were willful and intentional as defined by Texas law. After interviewing dozens of Duntsch's patients and their survivors, prosecutors concluded that Duntsch's actions were indeed criminal, and nothing short of imprisonment would prevent him from practicing medicine again. As part of their investigation, they obtained the 2011 email in which Duntsch boasted about his desire to become a "cold blooded killer."[6][10][11] Michelle Shugart, who led the prosecution of Duntsch, later recalled that Henderson, Kirby and Lazar reached out to her demanding to testify against Duntsch; according to Shugart, doctors almost never testify against each other.[4]

In July 2015, approximately a year and a half after his license was revoked, Duntsch was arrested in Dallas and charged with six felony counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon (i.e., his hands and surgical tools), five counts of aggravated assault causing serious bodily injury, and one count of injury to a child, elderly or disabled person. The indictments were handed up just four months before the statute of limitations ran out.[14][10] The last charge was for the maiming and paralyzing of Efurd. Prosecutors put a high priority on that charge, as it provided the widest sentencing range, with Duntsch facing up to life in prison if convicted. Prosecutors sought a sentence long enough to ensure that Duntsch would never be able to practice medicine again.[15][8][6][10]

Shugart argued that Duntsch should have known he was likely to hurt others unless he changed his approach, and his failure to learn from his past mistakes proved that his maiming of Efurd was intentional. Prosecutors also faulted Duntsch's employers for not reporting him. They argued that Duntsch was motivated to continue operating by mounting financial problems, and believed a surgeon's lucrative salary could solve them.[4] Over objections from Duntsch's lawyers, prosecutors called many of Duntsch's other patients to the stand in order to prove that his actions were intentional. According to his lawyers, Duntsch only realized how bad of a job he'd done as a surgeon when prosecution experts told the jury about his many blunders on the operating table.[6] Duntsch's defense blamed their client's actions on poor training and control by the hospitals.[16] Shugart countered that the now-infamous 2011 email, sent after his first surgeries went wrong, proved that he knew his actions were intentional.[4]After 13 days of trial, the jury needed only four hours to convict him for the maiming of Efurd.[15] On February 20, 2017, he was sentenced to life in prison.[16][17] On December 11, 2018, the Texas Court of Appeals affirmed Duntsch's conviction by a 2-1 split decision.[18] On May 8, 2019, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals refused Duntsch’s petition for discretionary review.[19]

All four hospitals that employed Duntsch have ongoing civil cases against them.[16] Many of Duntsch's patients suffered severe spinal cord damage, resulting in paralysis and pain severe enough to render painkillers ineffective.[4]

Duntsch, Texas Department of Criminal Justice #02139003, is housed at the O. B. Ellis Unit outside Huntsville. He will not be eligible for parole until 2045, when he will be 74 years old.[20]

Reactions[edit]

The conviction of Duntsch was one of the first instances where a doctor was imprisoned for malpractice, and has been called a precedent-setting case.[21] The office of the district attorney prosecuting the case called it "a historic case with respect to prosecuting a doctor who had done wrong during surgery."[22]

The director of neurosurgery at UT Southwestern, Dr. Carlos Bagley, testifying for the defense, said that “the only way this happens is that the entire system fails the patients."[3]

A neurosurgery expert for Duntsch's defense team himself said, "The conditions which created Dr. Duntsch still exist, thereby making it possible for another to come along." [23]

In popular culture[edit]

Wondery Media launched the 6-episode podcast series named Dr. Death, focusing on Duntsch.[24]

A mini-series based on the podcast will star Joshua Jackson, Alec Baldwin, and Christian Slater.[25]

In 2019, Duntsch was the focus of the premiere episode of License to Kill, Oxygen's series on criminal medical professionals. In 2021, he was profiled on CNBC's American Greed.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ "Christopher Duntsch Indictments". Scribd.com. Archived from the original on 2017-02-17. Retrieved 2017-03-29.
  2. ^ Goodman, Matt (November 2016). "Dr. Death - D Magazine". D Magazine. Archived from the original on 2017-02-22. Retrieved 2017-02-21.
  3. ^ a b c Eiserer, Tanya (February 13, 2017). "Dr. Duntsch defense expert: "The only way this happens is the entire system fails the patients"". WFAA. Archived from the original on February 17, 2017. Retrieved February 22, 2017.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u American Greed: The Real Dr. Death (Television Production). United States: CNBC. 2021.
  5. ^ "Former Neurosurgeon Faces Life In Prison After Guilty Verdict". CBS Dallas / Fort Worth. February 14, 2017. Archived from the original on February 22, 2017. Retrieved February 22, 2017.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Beil, Laura (2018-10-02). "A Surgeon So Bad It Was Criminal". ProPublica. Archived from the original on 2018-12-17. Retrieved 2018-12-17.
  7. ^ a b Swanson, Doug J. (March 1, 2014). "Plano's Baylor hospital faces hard questions after claims against former neurosurgeon". Dallas News. Archived from the original on February 22, 2017. Retrieved February 22, 2017.
  8. ^ a b "Barry Morguloff's suit against the Baylor Health Care System" (PDF). The Texas Observer. March 25, 2014. Archived (PDF) from the original on February 7, 2016. Retrieved 2017-03-29.
  9. ^ Martin, Naomi (August 21, 2015). "Surgeon who wrote of becoming killer is denied bail reduction". Dallas News. Archived from the original on February 18, 2017. Retrieved February 22, 2017.
  10. ^ a b c d e f g h License To Kill: Deadly God Complex (Television Production). United States: Oxygen. 2019. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  11. ^ a b "Assault trial begins for Dallas surgeon who once wrote of becoming 'cold blooded killer'". Dallas News. 2 February 2017. Archived from the original on 28 January 2019. Retrieved 28 January 2019.
  12. ^ Solomon, Dan (March 27, 2014). "Greg Abbott Enters Fray in Lawsuits Involving "Sociopath" Doctor". Texas Monthly. Archived from the original on November 6, 2018. Retrieved November 5, 2018.
  13. ^ Swanson, Doug J. (March 2014). "Abbott sides with Baylor hospital in neurosurgeon lawsuit". The Dallas Morning News. Archived from the original on November 6, 2018. Retrieved November 5, 2018.
  14. ^ "What you need to know about 'Dr. Death,' Dallas neurosurgeon Christopher Duntsch," Archived 2018-09-26 at the Wayback Machine Dallas News, September 20, 2018, retrieved September 20, 2018.
  15. ^ a b Andrews, Travis M. (February 16, 2017). "Texas neurosurgeon nicknamed 'Dr. Death' found guilty of maiming woman during surgery," Archived 2017-02-16 at the Wayback Machine The Washington Post, retrieved February 21, 2017.
  16. ^ a b c "Former neurosurgeon sentenced for purposely maiming patients". CBS News. 2017-02-21. Archived from the original on 2017-02-23. Retrieved 2017-03-29.
  17. ^ Eiserer, Tanya (February 21, 2017). "Doctor convicted of botched surgery gets life in prison," Archived 2017-08-24 at the Wayback Machine USA Today, retrieved February 21, 2017.
  18. ^ Council, John (2018-12-12). "Texas Court of Appeals Affirms Conviction of 'Dr. Death'". Texas Lawyer. Archived from the original on 2019-04-02. Retrieved 2020-04-15.
  19. ^ "Case Detail". search.txcourts.gov. Retrieved 2019-05-08.
  20. ^ Inmate information at Texas Department of Criminal Justice
  21. ^ "Texas Jury Imposes Life Sentence on Neurosurgeon | The Daily Voice". Thedailyvoicenews.com. 2017-02-21. Archived from the original on 2018-09-14. Retrieved 2017-03-29.
  22. ^ "Former neurosurgeon sentenced for purposely maiming patients". CBS News. 2017-02-21. Archived from the original on 2017-02-23. Retrieved 2017-03-29.
  23. ^ Van Wey, Kay. "The Making and Breaking of Dr. "Christopher Duntsch" (Dr. Death)". Van Wey, Presby & Williams Trial Law Firm. Van Wey, Presby & Williams Trial Law Firm. Retrieved 19 February 2021.
  24. ^ McDonell-Parry, Amelia; McDonell-Parry, Amelia (2018-09-04). "'Dr. Death': Inside 'Dirty John' Follow Up". Rolling Stone. Archived from the original on 2018-11-16. Retrieved 2018-12-17.
  25. ^ "Jamie Dornan, Alec Baldwin, Christian Slater Lead 'Dr. Death', Based On Podcast – Deadline". Deadline – Hollywood Entertainment Breaking News. August 9, 2019. Archived from the original on December 13, 2019. Retrieved 2020-04-15.

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