The Real Dr Death
Neurosurgeon Christopher Duntsch severely maimed and killed the majority of his patients.
Christopher Duntsch in theatre via dmagazine.com
As the number of operations grew, people began to notice that Christopher Duntsch’s surgeries — even the straightforward ones — weren’t going as planned. Quadriplegia, significant blood loss, and in some cases, death didn’t stop the surgeon from entering the theatre, and it took years for someone to finally make a stand.
Christopher Duntsch was born in Montana in 1971, and eventually completed his MD-PhD and neurosurgery residency at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center. However, whispers of Duntsch’s drug use circled the hallways, with some friends claiming they’d seen him on shift after taking cocaine and LSD, and he was sent to complete an ‘impaired physicians’ programme before continuing with his residency.
Duntsch had chosen neurosurgery because of the money. By the time he met his girlfriend, Wendy, he was in over $500,000 of debt due to his involvement in medical startups and living outside of his means. The pair ended up moving back to Wendy’s hometown of Dallas in 2010, where Duntsch was hired at Baylor Regional Medical Center at Plano as a spinal surgeon.
With a salary of $600,000, plus additional bonuses, Duntsch’s money worries were taken care of, but there was something still not quite right about the doctor.
He quickly started up an affair with his secretary and research assistant, Kimberly Morgan. Duntsch’s coworkers also remembered him boasting about his skills, claiming he couldn’t even use a scalpel properly.
They’d soon find out the extent of Christopher Duntsch’s issues.
Soon after Duntsch arrived at the Baylor clinic, he operated on his best friend, Jerry. The men had been friends since childhood, and Jerry was temporarily living with Duntsch in his home in Plano with Wendy and their son. Jerry would drive Duntsch around, and the pair partied together like they were frat boys.
The operation should have been relatively straightforward for the neurosurgeon. Duntsch needed to fuse Jerry’s vertebrae in his neck, but the amount of blood and muscle tissue the surgeon was pulling out of his friend’s wound wasn’t right, and Jerry woke up a quadriplegic, with no movement in his arms or legs.
Jerry Summers via court video testimony in Dallas News
Duntsch took some time off from surgery but was reinstated with full licences soon after he passed a drug test and a peer review, though he was asked to perform less complicated operations for a while.
In 2012, school teacher Kellie and her husband were bringing the Christmas decorations down from the attic when the 54-year-old slipped and herniated a disk in her back. Physical therapy and muscle prescriptions weren’t quite working, and Kellie wanted full movement back and to feel like her usual self again.
Kellie Martin via Dallas News
“We were planning on going to an out of country trip, so we thought we might get this fixed before we did.” explained husband Don in an interview with Fox News. “I didn’t want her to go through that if we could avoid it. That’s when we started exploring surgery options.”
Kellie’s doctor told her about a neurosurgeon who could alleviate some of the pain she had, so she booked an appointment with Dr Duntsch.
“He sounded very articulate,” said Don. “It sounded like he knew what he was doing. We figure it wouldn’t be an issue… He said it was a minor surgery, but that she would be OK after the procedure. A very simple, common procedure — that’s what we were hoping for. A quick recovery.”
But in the end, it wasn’t a minor surgery, and two hours after the operation began, the team of doctors and nurses were still working on Kellie, making it a much longer procedure than expected. Soon after, Don and his daughters were told the devastating news that Kellie had died in theatre.
Dr Duntsch had sliced through an artery, and Kellie had bled to death. Police lieutenant Don knew something wasn’t right from the outset, and he later learned of other maimed patients the neurosurgeon had left in his warpath.
Lee was a medical investigator in Collin County and had issues with his back for a while. In December 2011, Duntsch operated on Lee, but as soon as the surgery began, it was clear that the operation wasn’t going to be as straightforward as planned.
Another surgeon in the room claimed that Duntsch was “doing things that were unusual and, soon, alarming”. Duntsch had caused Lee to lose 750ml of blood — more than 15 times the usual amount of blood loss expected in that type of operation.
Because of the overabundance of fluids, Duntsch didn’t have a clear view of the spinal cord he was trying to operate near, which made the other surgeon uncomfortable, and he vocalised his concern. Instead of pausing the operation, Duntsch began removing parts of Lee’s spine and adding supportive hardware in the wrong places.
The other surgeon physically tried to stop Duntsch from finishing the surgery and later refused to work with Duntsch ever again. Still, none of the doctors or nurses present in the room that day reported the surgery or the altercation between the two surgeons to the governing body.
Because the report was never issued, a second surgery took place on Lee. Unfortunately, due to the operations, Lee suffered chronic back pain and limited movement, and because of how the screws had been placed in Lee’s spine, they can’t be corrected.
Duntsch moved to Dallas Medical Center, where he was given ‘temporary privileges’ until his surgery records were received from the Baylor centre.
Almost immediately, nurses grew concerned about the neurosurgeon, believing he was on drugs while performing his surgeries. Then, a week after he started at the clinic, another patient died, and one more was severely injured beyond repair.
74-year-old Mary needed two vertebrae fused, an operation any neurosurgeon could perform efficiently. Unfortunately for Mary, the spinal fusion hardware had been attached to her muscle by Duntsch, causing her to awake screaming and in extreme pain from her surgery. The screws in her spine were evident from the dents in her skin, and on top of that pain, her nerve roots had been amputated.
In fact, the technician in the operating theatre had the forethought to leave a spare set of tools for Robert Henderson, the spinal surgeon who came in to perform Mary’s emergency corrective surgery a short while later.
So many people knew what Duntsch was doing, yet none reported the doctor. He made mistakes one of his peers called ‘never events’, meaning they should never once happen to a surgeon, yet were continually found in Duntsch’s work.
In July 2012, Floella suffered a massive stroke after going into theatre with the doctor. The 63-year-old was having surgery on her vertebrae, like many others, but this time Duntsch severed her artery. Another surgeon overseeing the operation tried to step in to stop Duntsch from causing any further damage, but it was too late, and Floella died soon after.
Doctor Duntsch severely damaged other patients throughout his two years, with over 30 maimed and two dead, but it would take a while for him to be brought to justice for his crimes.
After Robert Henderson corrected Mary’s spine, he started to dig into Christopher Duntsch’s past, believing he was a fraud. Duntsch’s fellowship supervisor told Henderson about the ‘impaired physician program’, and the pieces began to fit together.
“I couldn’t believe a trained surgeon could do this,” Henderson told Texas Monthly. “He just had no recognition of the proper anatomy. He had no idea what he was doing. At every step of the way, you would have to know the right thing to do so you could do the wrong thing, because he did all the wrong things.”
Meanwhile, Christopher Duntsch had moved on and was now working at the Legacy Surgery Center in Frisco. Here, he caused permanent damage to Philip Mayfield’s spinal cord when he drilled into it. Philip now suffers from nerve damage so severe that his skin peels from the pain.
Duntsch moved onto Dallas’ University General Hospital, where he mistook Jeff Glidewell’s muscle for a tumour and sliced through his vocal cords, severing one side and cutting his oesophagus. Jeff was left with a sponge inside him, and Randall Kirby was brought in to repair the severe damage to the patient.
Kirby wrote to the Texas Medical Board, complaining of Duntsch’s behaviour and performance, calling him a sociopath who presented a danger to his patients. Henderson and Kirby’s testimonials ensured Duntsch’s medical licence was taken away from him in December 2013 after a review of his cases.
In March 2014, Mary Efurd, Kenneth Fennel — who Duntsch performed surgery on in 2011 and 2013 — and Lee Passmore separately filed lawsuits against the Baylor clinic. They claimed the clinic knew that Duntsch was dangerous, yet they let him continue practising medicine and operating on patients.
According to Texas Monthly, the necessary requirements to demonstrate malpractice are obscenely high. To prove that the clinic intended to harm the patient is near impossible. However, there was something else brewing behind the scenes.
The doctor was beginning to struggle financially and acted strangely, including getting arrested for jumping the fence of his now-estranged girlfriend’s home, trying to get their child. In addition, he’d been caught driving under the influence, and in April 2015, was arrested for shoplifting $887 worth of merchandise from a Walmart.
Henderson and Kirby were concerned that, despite Duntsch’s licence removal, he’d be able to get another medical licence elsewhere, and they advised the Dallas District Attorney’s Office to press criminal charges against the doctor. However, they were running out of time as the statute of limitations was dangerously close to running out.
Duntsch’s colleagues and patients were questioned, and an investigation into his personal life began. Every detail was checked, and prosecutors eventually came across an email from December 2011 that the doctor had sent to his assistant, Kimberly Morgan.
In order for the prosecution to try Duntsch, they had to prove that the doctor’s mutilation of his patients was deliberate, and the email gave them just that.
The message, written at four in the morning, said, “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.”
Christopher Duntsch was arrested and charged with six counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, along with five counts of aggravated assault causing injury and one injury to an elderly person.
During the trial, various witnesses came forward. One confirmed Duntsch’s penchant for drinking and drug-taking at work.
“He would drink vodka beginning in the morning,” they claimed. “He would start by mixing it with juices but would convert to clear mixes throughout the day. In addition, he illegally obtained prescription drugs, such as Lortab, Xanax, and Oxycontin, for his own use. He was known to use alcohol while working as a neurosurgeon. Moreover, alcohol, drugs, and drug paraphernalia were found in his office at Baylor Plano.”
Many of Duntsch’s former patients came forward to testify against him, and the court heard of how doctors and nurses tried to stop him from operating. One of the depositions came from Duntsch’s former research assistant and girlfriend, Kimberly Morgan, who was present for most of the botched surgeries.
Mary Efurd giving her testimonial via The SunShe told the court that she also had to file for a protective order against her former boss when he continued to show up at her home, banging on her windows.
In an email to Morgan, Duntsch wrote, “Anyone close to me thinks that I likely am something between God, Einstein and the Antichrist. Because how can I do anything I want and cross every discipline boundary like it’s a playground and never lose.”
In February 2017, Duntsch was found guilty of the injury to an elderly person, Mary Efurd, and he was sentenced to life in prison.
Out of Duntsch’s 38 patients, 31 were left permanently paralysed or severely injured and two died, after surgery with the doctor. So how did he get away with his crimes for such a long time?
Saul Elbein writes in the Texas Observer, “[T]he Medical Board wasn’t designed to be an aggressive enforcer. It was mostly designed to monitor doctors’ licenses and make sure the state’s medical practitioners are keeping up with professional standards. The board’s mandate, spelled out in the Medical Practice Act, recognizes a doctor’s license as a hard-won, valuable credential. Doctors’ rights are to be protected at every step of the process. The board can’t revoke a license without overwhelming evidence, and investigations can take months, with months or years of costly hearings dragging on afterward.”
It’s believed that due to Duntsch’s mounting debt, he continued to operate on patients, despite his lack of sobriety because he was making on average $65,000 for every surgery he performed. In addition, his peers didn’t take their concerns any further than the operating theatre, let alone to the Medical Board, so Duntsch was able to continue abusing his patients.
The four hospitals where Christopher Duntsch worked continue to have outstanding civil cases against them due to his actions whilst employed there. Furthermore, they are likely to continue for years to come due to the grainy laws surrounding malpractice cases.
In February 2021, Jerry Summers died from an infection due to his quadriplegia. Across Twitter, the outpouring of love was mighty for the man whose life was changed beyond recognition by his best friend.
According to Jerry’s lawyer, Duntsch could now legally be charged for his friend’s death, but Jerry forgave his friend and didn’t want that to happen.
After sentencing, Christopher Duntsch was transferred to O.B. Ellis Unit near Huntsville, Texas, where he still resides. He won’t be eligible for parole until 2045.
Christopher Duntsch in custody via Dallas County Jail
Resources and further reading https://law.justia.com/cases/texas/fifth-court-of-appeals/2018/05-17-00235-cr.html https://www.dmagazine.com/publications/d-magazine/2016/november/christopher-duntsch-dr-death/ https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/culture-features/dr-death-dirty-john-follow-up-podcast-718262/