Peacock released a miniseries called Dr. Death in July 2021. The show depicts the story of a narcissistic neurosurgeon who botched 33 out of his 37 surgeries in the span of 18 months, maiming most of his patients. With an all-star cast and Joshua Jackson playing the titular character, the haunting crime drama paints a grim picture of gross malpractice.
The television show drew inspiration from a crime podcast also named Dr. Death. Both the podcast and show outline accounts too horrifying to believe. But fact is more horrifying than fiction in this situation as both are based on a real-life Dr. Death, a man named Christopher Duntsch.
This is the story of the real Dr. Death…
Actions Didn’t Match His Words
When Christopher Duntsch practiced medicine, he had a big resume with an enormous ego to match. Duntsch was an arrogant and self-assured man who knew how to present himself to others. Many of Duntsch’s patients, that would go on to sue him, said that he came off as a very knowledgeable doctor.
The way that Duntsch would discuss surgical procedures with patients and their families made it seem like he was one of the best. Despite his confidence, Duntsch’s actions didn’t match his words. After over 30 maimed patients, Duntsch was brought to court for his behavior inside of the operating room.
Unable to Admit Defeat
Duntsch’s story begins as early as high school. He was known for cultivating a very particular public image and built a reputation of never giving up, even if that was the correct thing to do. This theme presented itself throughout Duntsch’s high school and collegiate football career.
His former teammates remembered Duntsch begging coaches to keep him on the team even though he didn’t have the skills. After he had exhausted his athletic career, he set his sights on joining the medical field. He enrolled at the University of Tennessee at Memphis College of Medicine in a rigorous joint M.D./Ph.D. program.
The Perfect Candidate on Paper
During the program, Duntsch worked on academic papers, patents, and biotech startups. He got a neurosurgery residency and received a sought-after spine fellowship. As a spine specialist with over a decade of medical school under his belt, Duntsch seemed to be the perfect neurosurgical candidate on paper.
But in real life, his peers made a number of allegations about Duntsch’s troubling behaviors and substance use that took a toll on his professional persona. One alleged seeing Duntsch partying all night with what he called “neurostimulators,” a mix of cocaine and vodka until he had to report to the hospital for patient rounds.
A Side Program to Finish Training
Allegations of substance abuse weren’t a one-time thing as the University of Tennessee fielded multiple anonymous complaints with similar statements. Reports show that the university ordered Duntsch to take a drug test before continuing in their program, but he figured out a way to avoid it.
Instead of completing the drug test, Duntsch was put in a side program for liability-risk candidates. This allowed him to continue his surgical training, though it would prove to be insufficient. During all of this, Duntsch frequented a Memphis strip club where he met a woman named Wendy Young. She was one of the dancers who worked at the club.
A Crippling Amount of Debt
Wendy was drawn to Duntsch after seeing how many of the other dancers gravitated towards him and his charismatic personality. Due to the other dancers’ reactions to him, she assumed he was some sort of hotshot lawyer or doctor. Wendy was half right, as he was still a med student.
Wendy and Duntsch began a whirlwind relationship towards the end of his medical school and residency journey. By that point, Duntsch had already accumulated mountains of debt totaling over $500,000 from the money he owed his father and medical school bills.
His Reason for Becoming a Surgeon
Though he was more interested and excited about the research side of medicine, he learned that it wasn’t where the money was. If he was going to get himself out of debt, he would have to go the surgical route to bring in a higher cash flow.
When he finished his schooling in 2010, Duntsch was recruited with a $600,000 starting salary at Baylor Regional Medical Center at Plano in Texas. Duntsch and Wendy packed up their lives in Tennessee and moved to Dallas to start a new chapter together.
New City, New Job, New Girlfriend
When Duntsch and Wendy Young moved to Dallas, Wendy was already pregnant with the couple’s first child. Once they had settled in, Wendy gave birth to their son, and Duntsch began an affair with his assistant from the hospital.
Kimberly Morgan was Duntsch’s assistant during his time at Baylor-Plano, and their romantic relationship began shortly after he began working there. Duntsch had told both Wendy and Kimberly that the other was just a friend and the two women thought nothing of it.
Seriously Disturbing Email Exchanges
Kimberly and Duntsch shared countless email exchanges, many of which included disturbing statements and ramblings from Duntsch about how he saw himself. Not only did he send her messages claiming to be somewhere between an Einstein and the antichrist, but that he saw himself as constructing an empire.
According to his emails to Kimberly, Duntsch viewed himself as an out-of-the-box thinker and visionary. Duntsch wrote that he was ready to leave behind the good parts of himself to murder people. But what he did do his patients was as cruel as senseless murder.
Operating on a Close Friend
Jerry Summers was one of Duntsch’s close friends and one of his most significantly botched patients. Summers suffered from chronic neck pain as a result of a car accident and asked Duntsch to perform fusion surgery in 2011. During the surgery, Duntsch cut the vertebral artery, which caused considerable bleeding.
To stop the bleeding, Duntsch used so much blood clotting gel foam that it compressed Summer’s spine. Duntsch also removed enough bone that Summer’s head was basically free-floating and not at all secured to his torso.
Finding Forgiveness Without an Apology
When the anesthesia wore off, and Summers woke up after his surgery, he found that he couldn’t move his own body. Duntsch’s procedure had left him a quadriplegic. Not only was he in shock, but Summers was in such intense pain that he was pleading for someone to kill him.
Duntsch never contacted his friend after the surgery to apologize. Despite never receiving an apology, Summers found a way to forgive Duntsch. Jerry Summers passed away in February 2021 from an infection related to his quadriplegic status.
The Preventable Death of Kellie Martin
After Jerry Summers’ surgery, Duntsch was only allowed to do minor surgeries. After a passed psychological evaluation, Duntsch operated on Kellie Martin. Martin had a herniated disk from a fall. What should’ve been an easy surgery became deadly when Duntsch cut one of Martin’s major arteries, and she started bleeding out.
Duntsch continued the procedure despite warnings of her blood loss and closed her back up when he was finished. When Martin woke up after the surgery, she was in so much pain that they put her back under anesthesia. Martin ultimately died from too much blood loss.
Avoiding Any Real Punishment
After a preventable death and numerous maimed patients, Baylor-Plano executives permanently took away Duntsch’s surgical privileges at their hospital. Rather than be fired, Duntsch resigned from Baylor-Plano in exchange for a letter from the hospital stating that Duntsch was unproblematic.
If Baylor-Plano had fired Duntsch, they would’ve been obligated to report him to the National Practitioner Data Bank (NPDB). This database keeps track of problematic medical professionals. Duntsch started at Dallas Medical Center with temporary privileges since he hadn’t been flagged as problematic in the database.
First Procedure at a New Hospital
Duntsch lasted less than a week at Dallas Medical Center and still managed to permanently alter the lives of two patients, Florella Brown and Mary Efurd. Brown had come to see Duntsch for a cervical fusion procedure to relieve her back pain.
During surgery, Duntsch began complaining that he couldn’t work because there was too much blood. Duntsch had misplaced one of the fusion screws and ended up severing Brown’s vertebral artery. When Brown woke up from surgery, she seemed fine as she visited with family.
Floella Brown’s Tragic End
But early in the morning after her surgery, Brown was convulsing and passed out. No one was able to contact Duntsch for hours, and when he did finally show up at the hospital, Duntsch brushed off the concerns and got ready for another surgery.
Meanwhile, Brown had a stroke and was left in a medically induced coma while hospital officials fought Duntsch to transfer her care to another doctor. Brown ended up brain dead because Duntsch didn’t initially check on her, and Brown’s death was determined to be caused by excessive blood loss.
Bouncing Around With Temporary Privileges
Both of Duntsch’s surgeries at Dallas Medical Center went horrifically wrong, and the hospital wasn’t required to report him after parting ways because he only had temporary privileges. Duntsch bounced around to other hospitals in the greater Dallas area, all under the guise of operating with temporary privileges.
Among those surgeries, Duntsch left Jeff Cheney with no feeling on his entire right side, Philip Mayfield partially paralyzed below his neck, and Jacqueline Troy unable to speak or eat. Duntsch performed his last surgery on Jeff Glidewell, and it required another surgeon to go in and fix it.
Colleagues Determined to Take Down Duntsch
Two of Duntsch’s colleagues were determined to get his license revoked. Dr. Kirby’s first surgery with Duntsch was in January 2012 for Barry Morguloff. This patient came in for a routine spinal fusion surgery and ended up with anything but a routine recovery.
During the operation, Dr. Kirby was horrified as he watched Duntsch inappropriately use surgical instruments during the procedure. Because of the surgery, Morguloff dealt with severe back pain for months, and x-rays showed that pieces of the vertebrae were wedged in his back nerves.
Called For an Emergency Revision Surgery
Later in 2012, Dr. Henderson over at the Dallas Medical Center became involved with one of Duntsch’s botched surgeries. About five months after the Barry Morguloff disaster, Dr. Henderson was called in for a revision spinal surgery that Duntsch had done on an elderly patient named Mary Efurd.
When Dr. Henderson studied the scans, he was shocked to see that Duntsch hadn’t even touched the disc that was supposed to be completely removed. Instead, Dr. Henderson was appalled, just as Dr. Kirby had been, with Duntsch’s sloppy work.
Recording a Fix of Duntsch’s Horrific Mistakes
Dr. Henderson figured that legal action was certainly the cards for a surgeon like Duntsch, who had such a terrible track record with surgical procedures. Dr. Henderson decided to bring a camera to record his fix of Duntsch’s mishandled operation.
Dr. Henderson found and removed a screw in a nerve, hardware life in the soft tissue surrounding Efurd’s spine, a detached nerve root, and numerous screw holes scattered across her spine. Many of the screws and rods were loosely placed, many of them not placed into a bone.
Surgical Results Point to Purposeful Inflicted Pain
Mary Efurd’s surgery results were so unbelievably bad that Dr. Henderson went so far as to contact Duntsch’s surgical training program because he just assumed that Duntsch was a fraud. The surgical program confirmed with photographs that Duntsch was who he said he was.
Dr. Henderson concluded that Duntsch must have been aware of what was going on since it looked like he did every single step incorrectly, something that only someone who at one time knew the correct way to do it could accomplish.
Recommendations to Lose Hospital Privileges Immediately
Dr. Henderson knew that he couldn’t sit by while this man continued to operate on patients and recommended that Duntsch lose his hospital privileges as soon as possible. Dr. Henderson was on his own mission to bring Duntsch’s patients justice.
Meanwhile, Dr. Kirby was unable to keep his vow and was assigned to fix one of Duntsch’s faulty operations. Jeff Glidewell trusted Duntsch to fix a pinched nerve he had lived with in his neck but ended up leaving the hospital with one less vocal cord and partially paralyzed.
He Left a Surgical Sponge Inside of a Patient
Dr. Kirby reopened Glidewell up to assess the damage and was truly appalled. Duntsch had sliced into Glidewell’s vocal cords, cut an artery, and sliced Glidewell’s esophagus. Duntsch had thought that a section of Glidewell’s neck muscle was a tumor and stopped the operation halfway through the surgery.
As if that wasn’t horrific enough, Duntsch had used a surgical sponge for the bleeding but left it inside of the patient when he stitched him back up. The sponge had started festering by the time Dr. Kirby removed it.
Contacting the Texas Medical Board
Dr. Kirby wrote to the Texas Medical Board right after that 2013 surgery and tore apart Duntsch’s performance of both surgeries he worked on with him. He stated that Duntsch was incompetent and was functioning at a skill level of a first-year medical student.
Yet, at the same time, Duntsch showed no indications that he knew how poor his technique was. Both Dr. Henderson and Dr. Kirby had made several complaints to the medical board separately, and only when they teamed up did they start to get the ball rolling.
Lacking Safeguards to Protect Patients
In June 2013, Duntsch’s case was finally brought before the Texas Medical Board for gross malpractice. During that time, Dallas, Texas, was a prime environment for Duntsch to practice medicine with little to no consequences. The Texas state laws didn’t have enough safeguards in place to protect patients properly.
Many of Duntsch’s cases were considered accidents, but Dr. Kirby and Dr. Henderson argued that many of the “mistakes” were things that shouldn’t happen at any point in anyone’s surgical career. The doctors collected statements from Duntsch’s former patients and recognized a pattern of dangerous errors.
Botched 33 Out of 37 Surgeries
Up until this point, Duntsch had performed 33 botched surgeries out of a total of 37 since he relocated to Texas. And of those 37 patients, two ended up dying in the operating room or soon after. Former patients and their families were shocked that the Board hadn’t taken away Duntsch’s license much sooner after hearing just how poor his track record was.
Records and testimonies showed that Duntsch’s surgeries had directly killed two of his patients and also highlighted a procedure when Duntsch left a surgical sponge inside of his patient.
Temporary Medical License Suspension
The board ruled that Duntsch had failed to properly prepare for these procedures and failed to notice and handle surgical complications as they appeared. They temporarily suspended his license to practice medicine in the state of Texas.
Because it was only temporary, Dr. Kirby and Dr. Henderson stepped up to figure out a way to make sure that his man never performed another surgery again. They kept pushing the Texas Medical Board and providing them with evidence of how dangerous Duntsch was to potential trusting patients.
Pressure to Press Criminal Charges
In the United States, when a medical practitioner permanently loses their medical license, they aren’t allowed to practice medicine anywhere in the country. Though, there are some cases where they can reapply for a license depending on the original reason that it was revoked.
In December 2013, about half a year after Duntsch’s case was brought before the Texas Medical Board, Duntsch’s medical license was permanently revoked. Dr. Kirby and Dr. Henderson started placing even more pressure on the DA’s office so that Duntsch couldn’t reapply for licensure somewhere else like he planned.
Personal Life Spirals Out of Control
Once the ruling came back that his license had been permanently revoked, Duntsch’s personal life started spiraling even more out of control. Around the time that Duntsch was called before the Texas Medical Board, he and his then-girlfriend Wendy Young had separated.
News of what happened to his patients and his infidelity pushed Wendy to leave him. The pair shared one son, and Wendy was pregnant with their second child when she left to move in with her sister. In early 2014, Duntsch was arrested for presumed driving under the influence in Colorado.
Pulled Over by the Police
Duntsch had moved back in with his folks after filing for bankruptcy when police pulled him over. They found one empty Mike’s Hard Lemonade bottle and one full one inside of the vehicle. The evidence paired with the fact that Duntsch had been driving with two flat tires convinced the officers to bring Duntsch back with them to the station.
Later that same year, reports showed that Duntsch had been arrested another time, though back in Texas. He had supposedly hopped the fence of his ex-Wendy Young’s sister’s house in Garland, Texas.
Taking Away His Own Son
Wendy Young’s family told officers that Duntsch had come into the house through the open back door and grabbed his infant son from Wendy’s mother. Duntsch then left the house with his son and drove away with him, all while Wendy was at the hospital giving birth to her and Duntsch’s second son.
Police reports later showed that when Wendy spoke to police officers, she explained that the misunderstanding stemmed from the preexisting poor relationship between Wendy’s family and Duntsch.
Filmed Attempt of Shoplifting
These were all personal run-ins with the law, but in 2015 Duntsch tried to publicly shoplift. That April, Duntsch was captured on camera entering a local Walmart and attempting to steal almost $900 worth of products.
It was clear that he was in a bad place as one of the items he tried stealing was a pair of pants that he was wearing. All the while that Duntsch’s personal life was sinking faster than the Titanic, Dr. Kirby, and Dr. Henderson were working twice as hard to press criminal charges against Duntsch.
District Attorney’s Office Takes the Case
Dr. Henderson continued to investigate further into Duntsch’s surgical history and collect evidence. Dr. Kirby wrote a formal complaint letter to the District Attorney’s office, but both doctors had to follow up on it numerous times before anyone paid attention to Duntsch’s crimes.
After years of pushing, the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office finally agreed to take the case. But it wasn’t going to be a simple case to conquer. The DA’s office was facing its own challenges as they attempted to bring charges against Duntsch.
Fighting A Case Without Precedent
In the state of Texas, there wasn’t much precedent to use as an example as there hadn’t been a case like this one before. Arguing a case is hard enough without setting your own precedent. Despite such a long and horrendous rap sheet, prosecutors decided that their best strategy was to indict Duntsch on only a handful of wrongdoings.
Three months after Duntsch had been arrested for the attempted Walmart shoplifting, the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office moved forward and arrested Duntsch for gross medical malpractice in 2015.
Finally Pressing Criminal Charges
The DA’s office charged Duntsch with a first-degree felony of harming an elderly person, Mary Efurd, and five second-degree felonies for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon causing bodily injury. Prosecutors argued that Duntsch’s surgical tools and his hands were equivalent to deadly weapons in the context of surgical procedures.
Duntsch pleaded not guilty and claimed that he was a victim of an extortion conspiracy. He claimed that people were trying to use him as a middleman to funnel money from the hospitals that employed him.
Hospitals Hit With Lawsuits
While Duntsch sat in prison awaiting trial, the hospitals that Duntsch worked at were hit with countless lawsuits from his maimed patients. They accused the hospitals of protecting a surgeon who they knew was responsible for serious bodily harm.
All but one of Duntsch’s patients who were part of this lawsuit settled with the hospital and agreed to sign Non-Disclosure Agreements in 2016. By this time, Duntsch’s arrest and horrendous surgical track record were spreading amongst the American public and caught the attention of media outlets.
Rebranded as Dr. Death
As with most trending stories, media outlets like to come up with nicknames for notorious figures. D Magazine was the first, though certainly not the last, to rename Christopher Duntsch “Dr. Death” in the media. The nickname only worked in the prosecution’s favor.
This was especially clear after they discovered that Duntsch barely completed 100 operations while in medical school. One hundred surgeries may sound like a lot but not compared to the 1,000 operations that an average neurosurgery student completes. It was all painting a picture of an under-skilled, dangerous man.
Specific Strategy For the First-Degree Felony
Do you remember that video recording Dr. Henderson took of his emergency reoperation on Mary Efurd? Well, that video became critical evidence for the DA’s office to use and show the courtroom exactly how Duntsch left his patients’ bodies post-surgery.
Speaking of the courtroom, prosecutors came in with a very specific strategy to make sure that the first-degree felony would stick. They had decided that their best bet to ensure that Duntsch spent the rest of his life in prison was to have as many of his victims give impact statements.
The Power of Victim Testimony
There was going to be nothing more powerful than a jury confronted with permanently disabled and injured individuals who could clearly point at who had done this to them. One by one, the prosecution called them up to share their stories and experiences with the court record.
Some had to give their testimony through video calling because traveling is so difficult for them. Prosecutors used these patients to establish a clear, dangerously disastrous pattern that lasted the entire two-year period between 2011 and 2013 that Duntsch was operating on Texas patients.
Wanted to Become a Cold-Blooded Killer
The straw that broke the camel’s back was testimony that came from Duntsch’s ex-girlfriend and past assistant, Kimberly Morgan. Under oath, Kimberly shared the numerous concerning emails that Duntsch had sent her during their relationship that outlined how he wanted “to become a cold-blooded killer.”
Hearing such blatant statements shocked everyone in the courtroom and only helped the prosecution’s argument that Duntsch was intentional with his actions. After the prosecution and defense teams gave their closing arguments, the jury only needed four hours to deliberate and come back with a guilty verdict.
A Precedent-Setting Guilty Verdict
The statements from his other patients, along with his guilty verdict, convinced the judge to sentence Duntsch to life in prison. He is currently serving his life sentence outside of Huntsville, Texas, and won’t be eligible for parole until he’s 74 years old in 2045.
Duntsch’s conviction and sentencing have been viewed as a case that sets a precedent for other medical professionals. For everyone’s safety, we can only hope that the system continues to make strides towards protecting patients from monsters like Dr. Death ever practicing medicine.