Unspeakable Times
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How Dr. Death Managed To Operate In Plain Sight For So Long

Updated May 2, 2019 10.1k views15 items

After Christopher Duntsch completed medical school and his neurosurgery residency at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center in Memphis, he moved to Dallas, TX, in 2011. But what seemed like the start of a promising career for a brilliant neurosurgeon quickly escalated into one of the worst cases of medical malpractice and criminal activity ever documented.

During his two years as a surgeon in Texas, Duntsch became known as Dr. Death for causing serious and permanent physical damage to 33 of his 37 patients, as well as killing two others. When other surgeons were brought in to fix Duntsch's mistakes, they found Duntsch had regularly caused permanent nerve damage, misplaced medical hardware inside of his patients, removed the wrong bones, and once even sewed a victim up with a sponge still inserted in the patient's back. His operations were catastrophic and damaging to almost all of his patients.

It took six months and dozens of shocking surgery mishaps before anyone reported Duntsch to the medical board, and nearly another year before the board revoked his medical license. Duntsch continued to operate during this time. Finally, in 2017 after a lengthy trial along with years of doctors and victims calling for action, Dr. Death was sentenced to life in prison. Though there are plenty of documented crimes committed by doctors, Duntsch was the first to ever receive such a sentence for medical malpractice.

  • Spring 2012: After Temporary Suspension, Duntsch Kills Kellie Martin In A Routine Surgery

    Spring 2012: After Temporary Suspension, Duntsch Kills Kellie Martin In A Routine Surgery
    Photo: Airman 1st Class Andrew D. Sarver / US Air Force photo / Public Domain

    Baylor temporarily suspended Duntsch for less than a month after he botched an elective spinal fusion surgery on his childhood friend, Jerry Summers. When Duntsch returned to Baylor in the spring of 2012, he operated on Kellie Martin, a school teacher who had fallen from a ladder and compressed a nerve. Her autopsy showed Duntsch had cut a major vessel during her surgery, causing her to bleed out in the hospital several hours later.

    Baylor ordered Duntsch to take a drug test following the incident. The results indicated the first sample was diluted with water, but his second test came back clean. Martin's case was ruled an accident. 

  • April 20, 2012: Duntsch Resigns From Baylor Before They Can Fire Him

    As explored in the Wondery podcast entitled Dr. Death, Duntsch resigned from Baylor on April 20, 2012, before he could be fired. Since he left voluntarily, he was not reported. Duntsch walked out of the hospital where he was responsible for inflicting irreparable damage to several patients, including his childhood friend. He left with a full recommendation letter stating "no restrictions or suspensions" on his "clinical privileges" had taken place during his employment, according to Rolling Stone.

    Duntsch was not reported to the Texas Medical Board by Baylor-Plano at this time.

  • July 2012: Dallas Medical Center Offers Duntsch Five Trial Surgeries 

    A few months after Duntsch resigned from Baylor-Plano, he applied for surgical privileges at Dallas Medical Center. In July 2012, after Duntsch's background examination had come back clean, the Dallas Medical Center granted him temporary privileges and a trial of five surgeries over three consecutive days.

    While the first surgery appeared to have initially gone well, the latter two resulted in one patient's death and another suffered permanent physical damage.

  • July 2012: Duntsch Is Fired From The Dallas Medical Center And Reported

    After botching two surgeries, Duntsch was fired from the Dallas Medical Center in July 2012. When Dr. Robert Henderson, a senior neurosurgeon at the hospital, was called in to repair the damage done by Duntsch during the second surgery, he found Duntsch had left metal hardware in the muscles of the patient's back, as well as amputated a nerve root. Henderson told the Texas Observer:

    I couldn’t believe a trained surgeon could do this... He just had no recognition of the proper anatomy... At every step of the way, you would have to know the right thing to do so you could do the wrong thing, because he did all the wrong things.

    Henderson called the Texas Medical Board, starting the lengthy process of filing a complaint to prompt an investigation.