Metal screws inserted into the spinal canal. A dissected esophagus. Holes randomly punctured through vertebrae. Severed bundles of nerves. This is just some of the horrifying damage Dr. Christopher Duntsch inflicted on patients who trusted him over the course of an 18-month botched surgery spree. In that time, the Dallas-based spinal surgeon maimed more than 30 patients, rendering some paralyzed and leaving at least two dead in what one doctor called "an unmitigated atrocity."
Now Duntsch, who's currently serving a life sentence in prison, is the subject of Dr. Death, a new podcast from Wondery, the creators of Dirty John. In it, host and journalist Laura Beil takes the listener on a six-part journey through Duntsch's deeply disturbing story, examining how a physician could intentionally harm people at their most vulnerable, and how our healthcare system somehow allowed him to continue doing it.
"One of the shocking things for me is that there were several gatekeepers along the way, there were several places where the entity involved could have stopped him—starting with his medical school—and nobody did," Beil said at a listening event in New York. "At every juncture something that should have happened to stop him didn’t happen. And I don’t know that that’s even that unusual."
Dr. Death, titled after Duntsch's nickname, traces his story back to his time in medical school at the University of Tennessee, and revisits the doctors, nurses, friends, and several unlucky patients who crossed his warpath, all of whom Beil says went out of their way to check Duntsch out through the internet, the state medical board, or referrals from other doctors.
"Every one of them thought that they had found everything that they possibly could," she said. "And they all thought that he was fine and he had good reviews. The sad fact is as patients we really can’t find out a lot about our doctors, so they just didn’t know. And the doctors who referred him didn’t know."
The podcast goes on to explore how the surgeon's reckless and potentially drug-fueled behavior continued to go unchecked, allowing him to operate at various hospitals in the Dallas area before his license was finally revoked in 2013. Beil collected rambling emails Duntsch sent to his office assistant, Kimberly Morgan, describing himself as "something between god, Einstein, and the antichrist," as well as a "cold blooded killer." She talked to Jerry Summers, Duntsch's childhood friend who he operated on and left a quadriplegic, allegedly after a night of using cocaine. She spoke to Philip Mayfield, who of all Duntsch's victims, Beil said had the most disturbing outcome.
"He has mobility issues and he has all kinds of really horrible nerve damage. Like his skin will feel like it’s on fire and then flare up and peel off," Beil said. "So he’s suffered a lot, and his family’s also suffered tremendously economically. He can’t work, his wife can’t work because he can’t be by himself because he also has other nerve damage where he’ll just pass out without warning."
But as upsetting as it is to hear the gruesome details and outcomes of Duntsch's botched operations, what's arguably more unsettling is listening to multiple people who witnessed his malpractice and felt powerless to stop it. And while Beil has called Duntsch an "outlier," she said that when it comes to our healthcare system, many of those failed safeguards have still gone unchecked.
"Chances are, hopefully, that we won’t have a surgeon that bad, but we should all care because we all rely on the same healthcare system. We all rely on the same safety mechanisms," Beil said. "I'd like to say that after this there was a lot of soul searching and changes and 'What can we do?'" she added. "But I can’t find any evidence actually that anything has changed."
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