Christopher Daniel Duntsch
|Born||April 3, 1971|
|Alma mater||Memphis State University (BS)|
University of Tennessee Health Science Center (MD-PhD)
|Occupation||Spine surgeon (former)|
|Conviction(s)||February 20, 2017|
|Criminal charge||Injury to an elderly person|
|Imprisoned at||Incarcerated 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) is a former American neurosurgeon who has been nicknamed Dr. D. and Dr. Death for gross malpractice resulting in the maiming of several patients' spines and killing two of them while working at hospitals in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex.
Duntsch was accused of injuring 33 out of 38 patients in less than two years before his license was revoked by the Texas Medical Board. In 2017, he was convicted of maiming one of his patients and sentenced to life imprisonment.
Christopher Duntsch was born in Montana and spent most of his youth in Memphis, Tennessee. His father, Donald, was a physical therapist and Christian missionary, and his mother, Susan, was a schoolteacher. He is a graduate of Evangelical Christian School in the Cordova suburb of Memphis.
Duntsch initially had ambitions of playing college football. He attended Millsaps College to play football, and later earned a Division I spot at Colorado State University. Former teammates later said that, while Duntsch trained hard, he lacked talent at the game. Duntsch returned home to attend Memphis State University (now the University of Memphis).
Having exhausted his football eligibility, Duntsch decided to switch to a career in medicine. In 2010 he completed the MD–PhD and neurosurgery residency programs at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, and subsequently completed a spine fellowship program there as well.
Duntsch completed his residency having participated in fewer than 100 surgeries. Typically, neurosurgery residents participate in over 1,000 surgeries during residency. He was suspected of being under the influence of cocaine while operating during his fourth year of residency, upon which he was sent to an impaired physicians program before being allowed to return to his residency program.
While in Memphis, Duntsch began a long-term relationship with Wendy Renee Young. They eventually had two sons, Aiden and Preston.
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, Duntsch was over $500,000 in debt. He decided to turn to neurosurgery, an extremely lucrative field. In 2010, Duntsch moved with Young to Dallas, Texas. Upon applying for work, he looked extremely qualified on paper: he had spent a total of fifteen years in training (medical school, residency and fellowship), and his curriculum vitae was twelve single-spaced pages. Duntsch also claimed to have graduated magna cum laude from St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital with a doctorate in microbiology – a program that the hospital did not offer at the time he allegedly attended.
Early in his tenure at Baylor Plano, Duntsch made a poor impression on his fellow surgeons. Veteran vascular surgeon Randall Kirby recalled that Duntsch's skills in the operating room left much to be desired: as Kirby put it, "he could not wield a scalpel".
Several of Duntsch's surgeries at Baylor Plano resulted in severely maimed patients:
Baylor Plano officials found that Duntsch failed to meet their standards of care, and he 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 (NPDB), which is intended to flag problematic doctors.
Duntsch moved 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, as nurses wondered if Duntsch was under the influence while on duty. He lasted for less than a week before administrators pulled his privileges after the death of a patient, Floella Brown, and the maiming of another, Mary Efurd.
Duntsch had severed Brown's vertebral artery, then packed it with too much of a substance intended to stop the bleeding. She suffered a stroke as a result. Duntsch did not respond to messages from the hospital for a few hours, then the next day postponed caring for Brown to perform an elective surgery on Efurd. Hospital officials were exasperated while Duntsch was in Efurd's surgery, and asked him multiple times to care for Brown or transfer her out of his care. Duntsch suggested drilling a hole in Brown's head to relieve the pressure, but was refused permission as he was not qualified for and held no privileges to perform brain surgery, and the hospital did not have the proper equipment or personnel for such an operation. Brown was left in a coma for hours before Duntsch finally acquiesed to her transfer. Brown ultimately died.
While operating on Efurd, Duntsch severed one of her nerve roots during spinal fusion surgery while operating on the wrong portion of her back, twisted a screw into another nerve, left screw holes on the opposite side of her spine, and left surgical hardware in her soft muscle tissue so loose that it moved when touched. Efurd was left paralyzed. She later recalled waking up feeling "excruciating pain", a "ten-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, recalling that his pupils were dilated.
Longtime spine surgeon Robert Henderson performed the salvage surgery on Efurd, and likened Duntsch's work on her to a child playing with tinker toys or an erector set. Henderson later recalled that he wondered if Duntsch was an impostor, as he could not believe that a real surgeon would botch Efurd's surgery so badly. He felt that anyone with a basic knowledge of human anatomy would know that he was operating in the wrong area of Efurd's back. Henderson sent Duntsch's picture to the University of Tennessee to determine whether he had actually graduated from the institution and received confirmation that Duntsch, in fact, had a medical degree from the university.
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.
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 patient Philip Mayfield's spinal cord while drilling into it, leaving him temporarily paralyzed from the neck down. After undergoing physical rehabilitation, Mayfield was able to walk with a cane but continued to experience paralysis on the right side of his body and in his left arm. He also experienced shooting pain all over his body. In February 2021, he died of COVID-19. According to his wife, he had been vulnerable to the virus due to underlying issues caused by the surgeries. While operating on Jacqueline Troy, Duntsch cut all but one of her vocal cords and one of her arteries and poked holes through her trachea. Troy was left barely able to speak above a whisper, had to be sedated for weeks, and had to be fed through a feeding tube for some time as food was getting into her lungs.
When Duntsch applied for a job at Methodist Hospital in Dallas, the hospital 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. Vascular surgeon Randall 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. Kirby claimed that it looked as if Duntsch had tried to decapitate him. As of 2018, Glidewell was reportedly still suffering the effects of Duntsch's botched operation and was only able to eat small bites of food at a time. He proved to be Duntsch's last surgery.
Kirby 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." Under heavy lobbying from Kirby and Henderson, the Texas Medical Board suspended Duntsch's license on June 26, 2013. The lead investigator on the case later revealed that she wanted Duntsch's license suspended while the ten-month probe was underway, but board attorneys were not 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 trained surgeon could be as incompetent as Duntsch appeared.
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 that, "You can't not know [that] and be a neurosurgeon." The Texas Medical Board revoked Duntsch's license on December 6, 2013.
Duntsch moved to Denver, Colorado, 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.
In March 2014, three former patients of Duntsch's – Mary Efurd, Kenneth Fennel, and Lee Passmore – filed separate federal lawsuits against Baylor Plano, alleging the hospital allowed Duntsch to perform surgeries despite knowing that he was a dangerous physician. 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, and removed 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.
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. The inquiry went nowhere until 2015 when the statute of limitations on any potential charges was due to run out. After interviewing dozens of Duntsch's patients and their survivors, prosecutors concluded that Duntsch's actions were indeed criminal.
As part of their investigation, prosecutors obtained a December 2011 email in which Duntsch boasted that he was "...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."
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, five counts of aggravated assault causing serious bodily injury, and one count of injury to an elderly person. The indictments were made four months before the statute of limitations were to run out.
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.
ADA Michelle Shughart argued that Duntsch should have known he was likely to hurt others unless he changed his approach, and that his failure to learn from his past mistakes demonstrated 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 argued that Duntsch believed a surgeon's lucrative salary could solve them.
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 had not realized how poorly he had performed as a surgeon until he heard the prosecution experts tell the jury about his many blunders on the operating table. Duntsch's defense blamed their client's actions on poor training and lack of oversight by the hospitals.
Shughart argued that the 2011 email, sent after his first surgeries went wrong, proved that Duntsch knew his actions were intentional. After thirteen days of trial, the jury needed only four hours to convict him for the maiming of Efurd. On February 20, 2017, he was sentenced to life in prison. On December 11, 2018, the Texas Court of Appeals affirmed Duntsch's conviction by a 2–1 split decision. On May 8, 2019, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals refused Duntsch’s petition for discretionary review.
All four hospitals that employed Duntsch have ongoing civil cases against them.
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. 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."
The director of neurosurgery at UT Southwestern, Carlos Bagley, testifying for the defense, said that "the only way this happens is that the entire system fails the patients." 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."
Dr. Death, a mini-series based on the podcast began streaming on Peacock on July 15, 2021. It stars Joshua Jackson as Duntsch, Alec Baldwin as Robert Henderson, and Christian Slater as Randall Kirby.
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