“Dr. Death” is finally behind bars

Neurosurgeon Christopher Duntsch terrorized patients for years after they trusted him under the knife.

A Texas jury has found a neurosurgeon guilty of maiming patients who had turned to him for surgery to resolve devastating injuries.  The verdict of the Dallas County jury on the first-degree felony charge of injury to an elderly person, means that 44-year-old Christopher Duntsch could be sentenced to anywhere from five to 99 years or life in prison, or he could receive probation. Duntsch, who practiced medicine at various hospitals in Dallas and Collin counties, was accused of crippling four patients and causing the death of two, between July 2012 and June 2013.  Duntsch was arrested in July 2015 on five aggravated assault charges, but his trial focused only on a first-degree felony charge: injury to an elderly person.  Duntsch is the rare physician to be indicted on multiple counts of aggravated assault related to what happened in his operating rooms.  “I cannot recall a physician being indicted for aggravated assault for acts committed during surgery,” Toby Shook, a Dallas defense attorney who spent 23 years working as a Dallas County prosecutor, told a magazine. “And not just Dallas County — I don’t recall hearing about it anywhere.”

“I couldn’t turn over in the bed, and my thought was [that] something is wrong.”

The jury deliberated about four hours before deciding on the verdict.  The indictment accused Duntsch of extensive medical malpractice that included improper placement of screws and plates along patients’ spines, a sponge left in another patient, and the cutting of a major vein in another.  Medical records also showed that he operated on the wrong part of a patient’s spine, damaged nerves and left one woman with chronic pain and dependent on a wheelchair.  Nicknamed “Dr. Death”,  and referred to by colleagues as a “sociopath,” the “worst surgeon I’ve ever seen,” and “a clear and present danger to the citizens of Texas,” Duntsch is responsible for a slew of botched surgeries resulting in serious injury, paralysis, and even death.

Kellie Martin, who was Duntsch’s patient, died in 2012 after he performed her back surgery.  The Collin County medical examiner ruled the cause of death to be “therapeutic misadventure.” Another of Duntsch’s patients, Mary Efurd, was bound to a wheelchair after her spinal surgery.  She had gone to Duntsch in 2012 because of chronic back pain.  She woke up from spinal fusion surgery at Dallas Medical Center in severe pain.  “I could not move my feet and legs,” said Efurd, a former teacher’s aide. “I couldn’t turn over in the bed, and my thought was [that] something is wrong.”  She described her pain as a “10 plus” on a scale of one to 10.  The hospital removed Duntsch from her case and brought in another physician to try to conduct a revision surgery.  During the revision surgery it was revealed that there were holes in Ms. Efurd’s bones that should not have been there; holes in the outer membrane surrounding the spinal cord had caused spinal fluid to leak due to an amputated nerve root.  In addition to this, a screw had been inserted in the wrong place and an implant device was in the muscle instead of a spine.  Duntsch had destroyed the muscle to make a tunnel to implant the device.  The substitute physician described Duntsch’s surgery as tragedy.  He thought Duntsch might even be an imposter.

Passmore cannot run or swim with his children.  He struggles with incontinence. 

In November 2011, Lee Passmore was hooked on prescription opiates.  These drugs numbed the pain that radiated from his lower back, down each of his legs.  He thought surgery might give him some relief from the pain and eliminate the need for drugs.  He thought it would be a way to solve both problems at once.  Passmore’s pain management specialist advised against an operation, but then he gave Passmore the card of a neurosurgeon named Christopher Duntsch.  Passmore’s surgery was a spinal fusion; a procedure that uses metal implants and bone grafts to stabilize adjoining vertebrae.  During Passmore’s surgery, a second surgeon assisting Duntsch became deeply concerned.  There was excessive blood loss, he said, and Duntsch was removing part of the spine unnecessarily.  A week later, Duntsch performed a second surgery on Passmore, and although this surgery apparently went well, Passmore learned that a ligament in his leg had been severed.  Nerve pain now fires through his back as a  result of a screw lodged in a nerve bundle.  Passmore cannot run or swim with his children.  He struggles with incontinence.  When he stepped off the bed for the first time after surgery, the feeling on the bottom of his feet had vanished.

“…there is no record of Duntsch in yearbooks from the University of Tennessee Health Science Center at the time in which he says he earned his Ph.D…”

The 40-year-old man who arrived in Dallas in the summer of 2011 was a completely different Christopher Duntsch than the one who was introduced to the public after more than a dozen allegations of severely botched surgeries.  Duntsch had a comfortable upbringing.  He attended a private high school.  His father was a physical therapist.  His mother taught school.  He received his undergraduate degree from the University of Memphis and his medical degree at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center.  His resume states that he earned a doctorate in microbiology from St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, graduating summa cum laude.  St. Jude’s however, says there was no such program at the hospital at that time.  Further, there is no record of Duntsch in yearbooks from the University of Tennessee Health Science Center at the time in which he says he earned his Ph.D., and the school declined to verify his claims, citing a federal privacy law.

…Duntsch’s hands and surgical tools amounted to “deadly weapons…”

According to Duntsch, he earned his medical degree, graduating among the top 12 percent of medical school graduates in his class and was named to the elite Alpha Omega Alpha Medical Honor Society.  He stayed at the University of Tennessee for his surgical residency, spending the standard five years learning neurosurgery and one year learning general surgery.  He was then appointed as a program director of the school’s tissue bank, where he would supply samples to scientists and oversee two labs.  He gained experience writing grants, and earned more than $3 million in local, state, and federal funding for research projects where he served as principal or co-principal investigator.  Despite his early success, Duntsch struggled with drug and alcohol abuse and was believed to perform his hospital rounds while under the influence.

During his trial, prosecutors argued that Duntsch’s hands and surgical tools amounted to “deadly weapons” and that Duntsch “intentionally, knowingly and recklessly” harmed up to 15 of his patients.  Prosecutors also introduced as evidence, Duntsch’s 2011 email to his girlfriend stating that he would “become a cold-blooded killer.”  However, Duntsch’s attorneys argued that Duntsch was not a criminal but just a lousy surgeon committing malpractice in chaotic operating rooms in hospitals in Dallas and its northern suburbs.  They also said the tone of the email to his girlfriend was unclear and could have been meant as sarcasm.

The real tragedy of the story of Dr. Death is how preventable it was.  Over the course of 2012 and 2013, even as the Texas Medical Board and the hospitals he worked with received repeated complaints from a half-dozen doctors and lawyers begging them to take action, Duntsch continued to practice medicine.  Doctors brought in to clean up his surgeries decried his “surgical misadventures,” according to hospital records.  His mistakes were obvious and well-documented.  Still, it took the Texas Medical Board more than a year to stop Duntsch—a year in which he continued to operate on patients who ended up seriously injured or dead.

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About Olga Ivanushko, Senior Staff Writer Emeritus (13 Articles)
Olga Ivanushko is a 2017 graduate of Campbell Law School and served as a Senior Staff Writer for the Campbell Law Observer. Olga is originally from Belarus, but has lived in Hollywood, Florida, then Raleigh, North Carolina for the past 13 years. She earned BA in Political Science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Between undergrad and law school Olga worked as a paralegal at a plaintiffs’ medical malpractice and personal injury firm in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. After her first year in law school, Olga interned at the North Carolina Medical Board. Olga now interns with the Honorable John M. Tyson at the North Carolina Court of Appeals.