What is it?
Christopher Duntsch was a neurosurgeon who claimed he was the “best in Dallas”. If you had back pain and had tried everything else, Christopher Duntsch would give you the surgery to take your pain away. Christopher Duntsch is now serving life in prison for a number of botched surgeries, earning him the nickname Dr. Death.
Over the course of six episodes, journalist and host Laura Beil looks into how the supposed ‘medical professional’ was able to get away with intentionally harming patients when they were at their most vulnerable – exposing the American healthcare system that allowed him to carry on working at a number of different hospitals despite several dismissals.
There’s so much more to this podcast than just his botched procedures, which tragically left several patients paralysed and at least two dead. Duntsch’s grandiose sense of self, his drug use (often happening in his office at the hospital), and the stunning lack of responsibility from the hospitals to put a stop to his grotesquely mangled procedures, all add necessary colour to this tale that was able to continue for far too long.
Tell us more…
"One of the shocking things for me, is that there were several gatekeepers along the way, there were several places where the entity involved could have stopped him – starting with his medical school – and nobody did," host Laura Beil said at an event in New York. "At every juncture something that should have happened to stop him didn’t happen. And I don’t know that that’s even that unusual."
Health and science journalist Beil chronicles Duntsch’s story from his rise at the University of Tennessee to his eventual downfall and arrest; speaking to doctors, nurses, friends and uni alum who all knew him – as well as the patients who managed to live through his operations, all of whom state they had done extensive research on Duntsch before choosing him to perform their surgery.
"Every one of them thought they had found everything they possibly could, and they all thought that he was fine and he had good reviews.” Beil said “The sad fact is as patients we really can’t find out a lot about our doctors, so they just didn’t know. And the doctors who referred him didn’t know."
The patients Beil spoke to included Duntsch’s childhood friend Jerry Summers, who was rendered a quadriplegic after being operated on after a long night of drug use, and Philip Mayfield, who suffered horrific nerve damage as a result of his surgery.
“His skin will feel like it’s on fire and then flare up and peel off," Beil told of Mayfield. "He’s suffered a lot, and his family hass also suffered tremendously economically. He can’t work, his wife can’t work because he can’t be by himself because he also has other nerve damage where he’ll just pass out without warning."
Will I like it?
If you liked Wondery’s other popular podcast, Dirty John (which is now being turned into a TV show with Eric Bana), then you’ll love this. It follows a very similar pattern: a story about a man who is not all he seems to be, who managed to get away with being bad for far longer than he should have been.Instead of just exposing a corrupt man, this podcast also exposes a corrupt system.
But the faint of heart should walk right on by this one, because it is gory. As Duntsch was a spinal surgeon, many anecdotes describe in detail some of his botched surgeries. There’s a dissected oesophagus. Holes drilled right through the vertebrae. Foreign objects left inside bodies. Severed bundles of nerves. Metal screws inserted randomly into the spine. And a lot of blood. Which makes the lack of accountability that much worse. It might make you not want to set foot in a hospital ever again.
You can listen to Dr. Death at Wondery.com