‘Dr Death’ Podcast Features Surgeon Recalling Christopher Duntsch’s Botched Procedures

Zachary Stieber
By Zachary Stieber
March 12, 2019USshare
‘Dr Death’ Podcast Features Surgeon Recalling Christopher Duntsch’s Botched Procedures
Christopher Duntsch in a file mugshot. (Dallas County Sheriff's Office)

The “Dr. Death” podcast features Randall Kirby, a Dallas surgeon, recalling how inept his former colleague Christopher Duntsch was.

Duntsch, 47, was a neurosurgeon when he operated on a total of 38 patients—31 of whom were left paralyzed or seriously injured, and two of whom died.

Kirby reported Duntsch to the authorities, along with other physicians. One called him “the worst surgeon I’ve ever seen,” reported the Texas Observer. Another said that Duntsch seemed to learn how to do everything perfectly so he could do the opposite.

The Texas Medical Board and hospitals where Duntsch worked received a number of complaints through 2012 and 2013 but the neurosurgeon’s license wasn’t suspended until June 2013. By then, it was too late for dozens of patients.

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Kirby assisted Duntsch on a spine surgery in January 2012. By then, Kirby had assisted on more than 2,000 spine operations. The one with Duntsch was the worst, he told the Observer. He recalled how Duntsch boasted as they prepared for the surgery that he was the best neurosurgeon in Dallas.

As Kirby told the board, Duntsch also “felt [that] most of the spine surgery being done in Dallas was malpractice, and he was going to have to clean things up.”

“His performance,” Kirby wrote, “was pathetic. … He was functioning at a first- or second-year neurosurgical resident level but had no apparent insight into how bad his technique was.”

The patient, Barry Morguloff, woke up with no feeling in his left leg and more pain in his back than he had before the surgery. Just three weeks later, another patient, Jerry Summers, emerged from the procedure unable to move his arms or legs. Summers remains paralyzed.

After years of failed surgeries, the board finally suspended Duntsch’s license. He was sentenced to life in prison for maiming patients in February 2017.

During the 13-day trial, jurors heard details of more of the surgeries.

“They heard from Philip Mayfield, who cries when he thinks of all of his son’s football games that he hasn’t been able to watch because he often passes out from chronic pain, and Barry Morguloff, who limps with a brace and a cane as a result of irreparable nerve damage in his spine,” reported the Dallas Morning News.

“They heard from Jeff Cheney, who woke up paralyzed from the neck down on his right side, and Jackie Troy, who talks in a permanent whisper and almost died from an infection after she was left with puncture wounds in her throat after Duntsch performed neck surgery on her.”

Duntsch’s legal team appealed but the conviction was upheld (pdf) in December 2018.

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The podcast, which was introduced in late 2018, was produced by Wondery Media, the same company behind “Business Wars” and “American History Tellers.”

In the description, the company wrote: “We’re at our most vulnerable when we go to our doctors. We trust the person at the other end of that scalpel. We trust the hospital. We trust the system. Christopher Duntsch was a neurosurgeon who radiated confidence. He claimed he was the best in Dallas. If you had back pain and had tried everything else, Dr. Duntsch could give you the spine surgery that would take your pain away.”

“But soon his patients started to experience complications, and the system failed to protect them. Which begs the question: who—or what—is that system meant to protect?” it added. “From Wondery, the network behind the hit podcast Dirty John, ‘DR. DEATH’ is a story about a charming surgeon, 33 patients, and a spineless system. Reported and hosted by Laura Beil.”

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