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Dr. Death: The Long & Bloody Road to Justice for Dallas’ Deadly Doctor

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The story of Dr. Death, Christopher Duntsch, feels like something out of a movie or book. A deranged surgeon runs amok, maiming and killing multiple patients, unhindered by a medical community sworn to police itself.

Unfortunately, it’s all too real. Christopher Duntsch is confirmed to have injured 31 patients and killed two patients during his time as a neurosurgeon in Dallas, Texas. In addition, he is the first doctor to be convicted of a crime committed in the operating room during the act of surgery.

I intend this article to be a one-stop resource for your curiosity and education. It’s important that this not be allowed to continue, and it’ll take sweeping reform to ensure the problem gets properly addressed. Because, sadly, but for the intervention of a few brave whistleblowers, there was a chance that Dr. Duntsch could have brutalized even more patients.

Christopher Duntsch: Life Before Dr. Death

Early life

Although born in Montana, Christopher Duntsch spent most of his younger years in Memphis, Tennessee, where he attended Evangelical Christian School in Cordova. He wanted to play college football but could not find a permanent home for his playing career.

So Christopher Duntsch bounced around from Division III Millsaps College to Division I Colorado State University until finally attending Memphis State University (now the University of Memphis), his eligibility exhausted. That’s when he decided to pursue neurosurgery.

Education

Christopher Duntsch finished the MD and Ph.D. neurosurgery residency programs at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center. There, he also finished a spine fellowship program.

Some of his friends and acquaintances in Memphis said they remembered seeing him leave for the hospital for his rounds after using LSD and cocaine. During his fourth year in residency, he came under suspicion of practicing medicine while under the influence of cocaine and even evaded drug testing after being confronted about it.

He was allowed to return to the program after finishing an impaired physician’s program, but there is some evidence that his use of drugs and alcohol continued.

When he finished his residency, he had participated in fewer than 100 total surgeries. The average for a neurosurgery resident is more than 1,000.

Personal Life

Dr. Duntsch eventually began a long-term romantic relationship with Wendy Renee Young while in Memphis. The two met at a Memphis strip club. They went on to have two children.

In Dallas, Duntsch developed a reputation of frequenting upscale bars and hotels where he partied with his lifelong best friend and personal assistant, Jerry Summers. Summers would later go on to become a quadriplegic at the hands of Duntsch’s scalpel.

Career

The initial part of Christopher Duntsch’s career capitalized on his Ph.D. instead of his MD. As a result, he contributed to multiple published papers and patents. Also, he took on varying levels of responsibilities in multiple biotech startups.

Yet, by the time he met his wife, Wendy Renee Young, he was more than $500,000 in debt. So, in bringing in more badly needed income, he decided to pivot to neurosurgery.

In 2010, Duntsch and his wife moved to Dallas, Young’s hometown. He would begin work at the prestigious but now defunct Minimally Invasive Spine Center (MISI) and Baylor Regional Medical Center at Plano.

The Dr. Death Years

Baylor Plano

In 2010, Christopher Duntsch began as a minimally invasive spine surgeon at Baylor Regional Medical Center at Plano (now Baylor Scott & White Medical Center – Plano). His salary guarantee was $600,000 upfront. The hospital’s officials believed Duntsch to be a highly trained surgeon worth every penny, and they expected to reap millions in profits. At this point, he spent a total of 15 years in training, from medical school to residency to fellowship, and he handed in a 12-page, single-spaced resume. 

Even early on in his time at Baylor, he rubbed some of his fellow surgeons the wrong way. Although he was the “new kid on the block,” Duntsch bragged that all the other spine surgeons in town were inept and that he and he alone was going to clean things up in the Dallas spine community. 

Note: This in and of itself is so radically deranged that it should have caused questions about his mental state.

Randall Kirby, a longtime vascular surgeon, said that Duntsch routinely boasted about his abilities even though he was relatively new. Kirby also had some judgments on Duntsch’s operating room abilities. He put it bluntly, saying, “He could not wield a scalpel.”

This ineptitude or malice led to horrendous results in one patient after another. For example, multiple operations Christopher Duntsch performed at Baylor Plano resulted in several severely maimed patients and one death. 

One of them was Collin County medical investigator Lee Passmore. Tragically, Duntsch put a screw in the wrong place in his spine during spine surgery. What made matters worse is that he stripped it, rendering it unremovable. As a result, Passmore suffered disabling and lifelong painful conditions. 

Pool service company owner Barry Morgoloff had bone fragments in his spinal canal due to Duntsch, who tried to pull a damaged disk out of his back with a grabbing tool. As a result, Morgoloff suffered lifelong painful and crippling injuries like so many others to come.

Longtime friend Jerry Summers went under Duntsch’s knife to fuse two neck vertebrae. Summers had been living with Duntsch as his driver, errand boy, and party buddy. Previously, when Duntsch attended the University of Tennessee, Duntsch tried to operate on Jerry, but his supervisors intervened because he was not a surgical candidate. But in Dallas, with no supervisor and no one above Duntsch to say no, he went right on ahead.

The surgery was a disaster. Summers lost two liters of blood, and Duntsch removed large amounts of muscle tissue, which rendered Summers a person with quadriplegia. Later, Jerry Summers said that he and Duntsch used cocaine the night before his surgery.

Baylor officials ordered Duntsch to take a drug test, but he stalled at first (as he had at the University of Tennessee), saying he got lost on the way to the lab. Eventually, Duntsch did pass a drug test. Then, after three weeks, he was allowed to operate once more but ordered only to perform minor procedures.

His first patient after his return was elementary school teacher Kellie Martin, who had a compressed nerve from falling off a ladder as she fetched Christmas decorations from her attic. During the surgery, records show Martin’s blood pressure inexplicably plummeted.

Baylor, still wary of the outrageous outcome in the Summers case with a young surgeon who they didn’t know well, reinstated Duntsch but asked him to limit himself to minor surgeries. So, Duntsch lined up a simple surgery, yet during this super straightforward and routine operation, Duntsch severed a major artery in his patient’s spine, Kelli Martin. Duntsch continued the operation despite the warning signs that Martin was losing fatal amounts of blood. As a result, Martin bled to death. 

Hospital officials found that Christopher Duntsch failed to meet their “standards of care.” However, Duntsch resigned before Baylor could fire him. Had he been fired, the hospital would have obligatorily reported him to the National Practitioner Data Bank (NPDB), which flags problematic doctors. Unfortunately, the medical professional community knows and can exploit this loophole of quitting to avoid winding up in this data bank.

Baylor issued Duntsch a letter stating his record is clean, although Baylor has denied this was a recommendation letter.

Dallas Medical Center

After being asked to leave Baylor Plano, Christopher Duntsch began applying for hospital privileges all over the Dallas Fort Worth metroplex. Many were wary, but he found a financially struggling hospital that was more than eager to put him on staff and get him into the OR as quickly as possible so he could begin generating revenues. Enter stage left, Dallas Medical Center in Farmers Branch. Rather than going through a longer, more formal credentialing process, Dallas Medical Center granted Duntsch temporary privileges to start operating right away, and indeed he did just that. 

Also note, that DMC was aware of the Summers and Kellie Martin outcomes at Baylor. However, Duntsch brought his lawyer and his marketing rep to the meeting and explained away (at least to DMC’s satisfaction) that the outcomes weren’t his fault… which was completely false and misleading, and a little more time and effort by DMC would have revealed this. 

Red flags made themselves clear early on. Duntsch’s behavior caused some nurses to wonder if he was under the influence. He lasted for less than a week before hospital administrators pulled his privileges, but not before the death and maiming of two other patients, respectively.

Duntsch only performed three surgeries at DMC. Floella Brown was #2. 

With Floella Brown, Duntsch severed her vertebral artery and then packed it with too much of a substance intended to stop the bleeding. As a result, she died from a stroke. While Floella Brown lay dying in DMC’s ICU, they allowed him to wheel Mary Efurd into their ER for elective spine surgery, even though one could only describe  Duntsch’s behavior as bizarre. He demanded that he be allowed to perform a craniotomy (brain surgery) on Floella Brown, even though that was not the source of her problem.

Duntsch was so rattled and disoriented that he appeared not even to be oriented to the basic anatomy of the spine when he operated on Mary Efurd. As a result, he severed one of Mary Efurd’s nerve roots during a spinal fusion surgery, operated on the wrong portion of her back, and placed surgical hardware in her back muscles instead of her spine where it was supposed to go.  As a result, Duntsch paralyzed Efurd. In addition, several people in the operating room at the time of Efurd’s surgery suspected Duntsch of intoxication. 

Dallas Medical Center revoked Duntsh’s temporary privileges, but even though Duntsch was deranged and dangerous, no hospital reported him to the National Practitioners Data Bank. WHY????? Because, at the time, hospitals were not required to report doctors who only held temporary privileges.

Legacy Surgery Center

And so, Duntsch goes on the hunt for another hospital that would put him on their staff. By now, the word is getting out in the medical community. The Baylor Plano and Dallas Medical Center cases were already being detailed on the local news, medical board complaints had already been levied, and lawsuits had already been filed. HOWEVER, none of this would be enough to fight against the for-profit hospitals and surgery centers that were more than willing to turn a blind eye to turn a profit.

Enter, stage right, Legacy Surgery Center (now Frisco Ambulatory Surgery Center) in Frisco.

There, he quickly returned to form. He damaged Philip Mayfield’s spinal cord by drilling into it. This blunder left Mayfield temporarily paralyzed from the neck down and permanently damaged one of his legs. Mayfield suffered from extreme pain, frequent “blinding” headaches, and nerve pain so severe his skin peeled. Philip recently died of COVID-19 complications, leaving behind a loving wife and three sons.

During this time, Duntsch had applied for a job at Methodist Hospital in Dallas. They refused to let him on staff, and they reported him to the NPDB. This action was the right thing to do because it alerted other hospitals where he might apply.

University General Hospital

Still, in the spring of 2013, despite the report from Methodist Hospital in Dallas, Duntsch went on to work at University General Hospital in Dallas. And, it wasn’t just the fact that there was now a report on the NPDB concerning Duntsch. By this time, the lawsuits were piling up, the complaints to the medical board were becoming vocal, and the news stories were continuing. In addition,  at least one physician and one lawyer personally called the owner of UGH and PLED with him to strip him of his privileges. 

The owner, also a physician, intended to let Duntsch operate as often as possible. The owner’s reasoning? There was no adverse action by the Texas Medical Board, and Duntsch’s legal cases had not been fully adjudicated. The lawsuits and press also did not stop him from actively promoting Duntsch. A letter was sent out promoting a welcome event for Duntsch, “meet our specialist,” at Dallas’ Old Warsaw.

By the way, University General is not associated with a University. A group of Houston investors had JUST purchased the hospital, which was broke and bankrupt. It was formerly known as South Hampton Community Hospital in an impoverished part of South Dallas. Certainly, a far cry from the prestigious Baylor facility where he began.

The patterns quickly emerged. In routine procedures, Duntsch caused spinal cord injuries, caused extreme blood loss, and in sum, operated as if he was either completely incompetent, severely impaired by drugs or alcohol, mentally ill, or a combination thereof. 

The voices in the community were getting louder and louder: STOP THIS MAD MAN. Yet, he was allowed to continue operating.

It wasn’t long before he severely maimed Jeff Glidewell during a routine cervical fusion after supposedly mistaking part of his neck muscle for a tumor. He also severed one of Glidewell’s vocal cords, cut a hole in his esophagus, sliced an artery, and left a surgical sponge embedded in his throat.

Dr. Randall Kirby, who earlier encountered Duntsch, was rushed in to fix Duntsch’s work. Later, Kirby described what he found upon re-opening Glidewell as the handiwork of a “crazed maniac.” Kirby went so far as to tell Glidewell that Duntsch had tried to kill him. Duntsch had left Glidewell with horrific injuries he was coping with for the rest of his life.

Glidewell’s surgery would become Duntsch’s last surgery. After that, Kirby wrote a detailed complaint to the Texas Medical Board, where he called Duntsch a “sociopath” and “a clear and present danger to the citizens of Texas.” 

Dr. Death’s Medical License Revoked

Dr. Robert Henderson and Dr. Randall Kirby lobbied the Texas Medical Board and successfully saw Duntsch’s license suspended on June 26, 2013.

However, it took a 10-month probe. Part of this was because of the surprisingly lengthy process caused by a few factors. For one, Board Chairman Irwin Zeitzler said that complications were more common in neurosurgery than laypeople may believe. Subsequently, it took a while to find the “pattern of patient injury” required to suspend Duntsch’s license. In addition, Zeitzler said that many board members couldn’t believe at first that a newly trained surgeon could be as incompetent as Duntsch.

Veteran neurosurgeon Martin Lazar came in to review Duntsch’s case. He was highly critical. For instance, he was aghast that Duntsch could miss the signs of Martin bleeding out, saying, “You can’t not know it and be a neurosurgeon.”

The Texas Medical Board revoked Duntsch’s license on December 6. But, not after Duntsch and his lawyers continued to fight for him to keep his license.

Duntsch moved to the Denver area and began a downward spiral. First, he declared bankruptcy, declaring debts over $1 million. Then, police arrested Duntsch for DUI in Denver. That was not all. Later, he was taken for a psychiatric evaluation in Dallas during a visit to see his children. He was even arrested in Dallas for shoplifting. 

Bringing Dr. Death to Justice

Civil Suits Against Dr. Death

There were multiple state court cases filed, and in March 2014, Mary Efurd, Kenneth Fennel, and Lee Passmore filed separate federal lawsuits against Baylor Regional Medical Center at Plano.

They alleged that the hospital knew Duntsch was a dangerous physician but allowed Duntsch to perform surgeries anyway. The suit said Baylor Plano made an average net profit of $65,000 on every one of Duntsch’s spinal surgeries.

In our Federal cases, we challenged the existing case law, which requires Texas patients to prove that a hospital acted with actual intent and malice when granting or maintaining a physician’s privileges. We argued that a gross negligence standard of conscious indifference to a patient’s safety should be the standard, but there was never a formal ruling on this issue.

Soon, as the media has covered extensively, then-Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott filed a motion to intervene, defending Baylor Plano. He cited the Texas legislature’s 2003 statute, which placed a $250,000 medical malpractice cap and removed the term “gross negligence” from the definition of legal malice.

Texas Monthly explained it well:

The Attorney General’s office isn’t obligated to defend laws like these, but it has the option to do so. The tort reform package in HB 4 was a popular law when it passed in 2003, with provisions that made it difficult to sue hospitals and which capped awards for pain and suffering at $250,000. But it also means that, with minimal consequences in the courts for allowing a doctor like Duntsch to continue to practice, there’s little incentive for hospitals to take swift action when a Christopher Dunstch is performing operations that leave patients maimed or dead.

Duntsch was facing repercussions on multiple fronts. There were ongoing civil lawsuits in Dallas County District Court and several in Federal Court. In the medical malpractice lawsuits, the lawyers were pushing forward and developing evidence. The civil lawyers, myself leading the charge, were digging deep into Duntsch’s background, using their financial resources to uncover the evidence. 

When Duntsch was finally able to be placed under oath to give his deposition testimony, he pleaded the 5th amendment privilege against self-incrimination to virtually every question I or others asked of him.

Ultimately, using the evidence developed in the medical malpractice lawsuits, the Dallas County District Attorney put together a criminal case.

Dr. Death’s Criminal Conviction

Dr. Robert Henderson and Dr. Randall Kirby urged the Dallas County district attorney’s office to pursue criminal charges. They feared that Duntsch might move and somehow get a new medical license. But, it was also the fact that it became apparent to me that these were not your run-of-the-mill medical malpractice cases. The physician experts I retained on the cases were aghast and stating that these were far from bad outcomes or just mistakes. Something had to be done!

The inquiry stalled until 2015,  until Michelle Shugart, Dallas County District Attorney, took a personal interest in the case. Having poured over the evidence developed in the civil cases and interviewing dozens of Duntsch’s patients and their survivors, she decided that Duntsch’s actions were criminal and brought charges for four of the surgeon’s botched surgeries.

Part of the investigation also involved obtaining a 2011 email uncovered in the medical malpractice cases where Duntsch boasted about a desire or resignation to become a “cold blooded killer.” For context, the message read, “You, my child, are the only one between me and the other side. 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.” He also wrote, “[W]hat I am, one of kind, a [expletive] stone cold killer that can buy or own or steal or ruin or build whatever he wants.”

Ultimately, prosecutors concluded that only imprisonment would prevent him from practicing medicine and hurting yet another patient, or more than likely, patients.

In July 2015, police arrested Christopher Duntsch on six felony counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon–his hands and surgical tools–five counts of aggravated assault causing serious bodily injury, and one count of injury to a child, elderly, or disabled person. Mary Efurd was the elderly person the prosecution focused their case around.  Prosecutors prioritized that final charge since it offered the widest sentencing range, including life in prison. The goal was to obtain a sentence long enough to ensure Dr. Duntsch could never practice medicine again.

Dallas District Attorney Michelle Shughart argued that Duntsch should have known early on that he needed to change his approach to avoid hurting others. Further, she argued that him not learning from multiple past mistakes was proof that his maiming of Efurd was intentional. But prosecutors didn’t stop there. They also faulted the multiple former hospitals for not reporting him despite knowing that he was hurting patients and would continue to hurt them. 

Dallas prosecutors argued that Duntsch’s financial woes drove him to continue operating in the hopes that his hefty salary could save him.

According to Duntsch’s lawyers, Duntsch realized how bad he was at his job only after prosecution experts took the stand and detailed the many blunders he’d made. This in of itself is outrageous because he already had the reports of many experts in the civil cases detailing his errors in multiple cases.

In turn, Duntsch’s defense team blamed poor training and hospital control for his client’s actions. Shugart shot back that the 2011 email where Duntsch called himself a “cold blooded killer” proved he was self-aware of his actions and intended harm.

The trial took 13 days, but the jury needed just four hours to return a guilty verdict for Efurd’s maiming. On February 20, 2017, the courts sentenced Christopher Duntsch to life in prison. On December 11, 2018, the Texas Court of Appeals affirmed Duntsch’s conviction. Finally, on May 8, 2019, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals refused Duntsch’s petition for discretionary review.

Where is Christopher “Dr. Death” Duntsch Now?

Christopher Duntsch (aka Dr. Death), Texas Department of Criminal Justice #02139003, resides at the O. B. Ellis Unit outside Huntsville, Texas. He will be eligible for parole in 2045. He will be 74 years old.

 Want to know more? Is this a once-in-a-lifetime story? Will there ever be another? I’ll be writing more on this subject, so stay tuned.

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