Last year, podcast network Wondery had a hit with Dirty John, which told the story of a charming, but manipulative con artist who set his sights on a successful Southern California divorcee. Now, the network is back with another story of a handsome, charismatic man who wasn’t all he claimed to be — only this time, the list of victims is long, the crimes occurred in plain sight and an entire system shares the blame. The terrifying reality at the heart of Dr. Death — which debuts its first two episodes on Tuesday, September 4th — is that there is nothing to stop it from happening again.
Dirty John’s source material garnered relatively little media attention, allowing the producers to structure the narrative as a mystery. Dr. Death, on the other hand, cuts right to the chase, in part because the man at the center of this story, Dr. Christopher Duntsch, was headline news for months in Dallas, Texas. That’s where, in just two years, the now 47-year-old neurosurgeon operated on 38 patients. Thirty-one of them were left permanently paralyzed or seriously injured, while two others didn’t survive. Between 2011 and 2013, Duntsch was employed by four Dallas-area hospitals, despite the fact that nearly all of his patients came out of surgery in far worse shape than when they went in — if they came out alive at all.
Reported and hosted by journalist Laura Beil, the central mystery of Dr. Death isn’t so much what happened, but how?
“That’s the big question isn’t it?” Beil tells Rolling Stone. “How did he keep finding jobs? This was really just a complete system breakdown on every level.”
Episode one details Duntsch’s disastrous first week at Dallas Medical Center in July 2012, during which he operated on three patients, two of whom would later be listed as victims of serious bodily injury in criminal indictments filed by the State of Texas. Floella Brown suffered a massive stroke and lost consciousness the day after Duntsch sliced her vertebral artery during surgery. Brown was still in the ICU when Duntsch began spinal fusion surgery on Mary Efurd, who would later wake up in agonizing pain, barely able to move her legs or wiggle her toes. Hardware that was supposed to fuse two of her vertebrae was found buried in soft tissue, a screw was lodged in nerves at the base of her spine and Duntsch had completely amputated another spinal nerve root.
Dr. Robert Henderson, who was brought in by the hospital’s administration to perform emergency rescue surgery on Efurd, later assessed Duntsch’s work as “an unmitigated atrocity.” And Efurd — who was left on the operating table with her spine exposed for 15 minutes while Duntsch threw a tantrum mid-procedure — was one of the lucky ones. Floella Brown was pronounced brain dead and passed away after she was taken off life support, one of several patients who earned Duntsch the nickname, “Dr. Death.”
Henderson is interviewed throughout the series, as are the nurses and hospital staff who assisted Duntsch in the operating room. Their accounts of Duntsch’s bizarre behavior and dangerous methods during Brown and Efurd’s surgeries are each more galling than the last, but even more nightmarish is that Duntsch had been a practicing neurosurgeon in Texas for more than six months, and even though he was dismissed by the Dallas Medical Center before the end of his first week, he kept performing surgeries for another year. According to Beil, even Duntsch’s very last patient in June 2013 — a man who was sewn up with a blood-soaked sponge stuffed inside his throat, where his vocal cords had been cut — “had no clue” about the surgeon’s two-year history of maiming and killing his patients.
“One of the more disturbing takeaways is that all the patients that I interviewed thought they were doing their homework,” Beil says. “It’s not like they were referred to [Duntsch] and were just, like, OK, and made an appointment. One of the patients I interviewed even had the wherewithal to contact the state board to see if there was anything on him.”
Patients who researched Duntsch learned that the licensed neurosurgeon got his MD and residency at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, a top-tier medical school in Memphis; while he was there, he ran two labs and raised millions in grant funding. Things would be very different for a lot of people if Duntsch had only stayed in the medical research field; but in July 2011, he accepted a position with a private practice in Dallas, and by November, he was granted surgical privileges at the Baylor University Medical Center in nearby Plano.
Duntsch performed just one surgery for the private practice before he was fired, but he continued to work at Baylor for the next few months until he resigned in April 2012. During that time, Duntsch’s surgeries on patients Kenneth Fennell, Robert Passmore and Barry Morguloff all resulted in permanent physical damage, and later, multiple lawsuits. Dr. Randall Kirby participated in Morguloff’s surgery in January 2011, and would later tell the Texas State Medical Board that Duntsch was “an impaired physician” and a “sociopath” who “had no apparent insight into how bad his technique was.”
“He really thought he was a good surgeon,” Beil tells Rolling Stone. “He had this completely narcissistic personality where he was just completely blinded to the idea that he could make a mistake.”
In February 2012, Duntsch performed elective spinal fusion surgery on his roommate, Jerry Summers, who is interviewed on the podcast about their now-former friendship. When Summers emerged from Duntsch’s operating room, he was a quadriplegic with incomplete paralysis, which means he can still feel pain, but can no longer move from the neck down.
According to Morguloff’s lawsuit, Beil’s reporting and a deposition with Duntsch’s former assistant, Kimberly Morgan, Baylor temporarily suspended Duntsch’s surgical privileges after Summers’ surgery. Less than a month later, they reinstated his privileges, and Duntsch operated on 29 more patients, including Kellie Martin. Duntsch’s last patient at Baylor Plano, Martin suffered massive blood loss during a relatively common spinal surgery, awoke in screaming pain, according to hospital nurses, and later died in the ICU. While her death was ruled an accident by the medical examiner, Baylor allegedly suspended Duntsch’s privileges again.
Instead of firing him, the podcast reveals, Duntsch submitted his resignation on April 20th, 2012, and the hospital provided him with a recommendation letter, dated the same day, which stated there had been “no restrictions or suspensions” on his “clinical privileges” during his employment. This claim is refuted on the podcast, in other reporting, and in patient lawsuits. Baylor Plano also never reported Duntsch to the Texas Medical Board or the National Practitioner Data Bank. According to Beil, all her requests to speak with administrators at Baylor Plano were declined.
When Dallas Medical Center came knocking a few months later, they immediately gave Duntsch temporary surgical privileges while they went about verifying his credentials, so he could start performing surgeries for them right away. Then Brown and Efurd happened, and Duntsch was dismissed before the end of his first week. Wondery told Rolling Stone that they reached out to Dallas Medical Center, but the hospital has an entirely new administration and was not involved with Duntsch, therefore did not provide comment.
“At every juncture where there was a safety mechanism in place that could have stopped him; it didn’t happen,” Beil tells Rolling Stone. “Sometimes hospitals skirt the rules on these things. It’s troublesome and time-consuming and expensive to fire someone instead of just letting them go and making it appear voluntary. It is much easier to just make a problem go away than it is to actually tackle it head on. ”
This explanation is strikingly similar to how other powerful institutions handle misconduct in their ranks. For example, not only are police officers rarely charged criminally for brutality, misconduct, and unnecessary use of deadly force, but their terminations are often kept confidential, making it that much easier for them to be hired by other departments. Likewise, a recently unsealed Pennsylvania grand jury report named over 300 Catholic priests accused of child sex abuse that the Church merely reshuffled from parish to parish.
Money is arguably the most influential factor in why hospitals were eager to hire Duntsch, says Beil. Neurosurgeons, on average, are the third most lucrative revenue generator for hospitals after invasive cardiologists and orthopedic surgeons.
“Neurosurgeons bring in a lot of money,” Beil says. “Some of these hospitals were quick to hire him and maybe willing to ration away the red flags because he was going to make a lot of money for them. The average neurosurgeon brings in around two million dollars a year to the hospital’s bottom line — that’s not for the doctor, that’s what the hospital clears.”
Duntsch finally lost his surgical privileges in June 2013, after Henderson and Kirby “broke the code of silence among physicians,” as the podcast puts it, and complained to the Texas Medical Board directly. But that was just the beginning of Dr. Death’s downfall; Kirby also sent a letter to the Dallas prosecutors office, writing, “I am beginning to think the police are the only ones intellectually and physically capable of getting to the bottom of this matter.”
Two years later, in July 2015, a grand jury indicted Duntsch on five counts of aggravated assault and one count of harming an elderly person, Mary Efurd. When he was convicted on all counts in February 2017, his sentence of life in prison was specifically for maiming her. (He is currently appealing his conviction.)
Beil says that, according to Duntsch’s own defense attorneys, it wasn’t until his trial that Duntsch finally realized that he was not good at his job.
“There was another neurosurgeon who served as the state’s expert witness,” Beil tells Rolling Stone. “His testimony during the trial was to explain how some of these operations [that Duntsch performed] should have gone. And it wasn’t until that moment when he heard another neurosurgeon saying he should have done X, Y and Z that Duntsch realized that he really was a horrible surgeon.”