The Terrifying True Story Behind Peacock's Dr. Death

Joshua Jackson went to the dark side to play Dr. Christopher Duntsch, who's serving a life sentence for maiming a woman during surgery, in the new Peacock series Dr. Death.

By Natalie Finn Jul 21, 2021 8:00 PMTags
Watch: Christian Slater & Joshua Jackson on New True Crime Drama "Dr. Death"

You'd like to think that being able to trust your doctor is part of the deal. Especially if he's a neurosurgeon, and he's going to be cutting into your body with the promise of easing your pain.

Christopher Duntsch shattered that trust over the course of a few years, ruining countless lives. And because the story of what he's accused of doing to 33 patients he operated on while practicing in Texas is more disturbing than most fiction because it's all too real, the cautionary saga was ripe for the telling, first in podcast form and now in the Peacock series Dr. Death, starring Joshua Jackson.

Suffice it to say, the 43-year-old actor was glad to have a wife and baby to go home to and hug after days spent playing, in his words to E! News, a "delusional narcissist" whose version of events is "so far removed from reality as you and I experience it, or the evidence of his own life as we come to witness in this show."

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In 2018 the Fifth District Court of Appeals upheld, 2-1, the life sentence Duntsch received in 2017 after being found guilty of injury to an elderly person, a first-degree felony. While the defense argued that it was your average case of malpractice, in this instance a not-very-good doctor screwing up on the operating table due to inexperience and poor training, the jury agreed with the prosecution's assessment that a botched spinal surgery he performed on then-74-year-old Mary Efurd in 2012 constituted malicious recklessness.  

Led by Dallas County Assistant District Attorney Michelle Shughart, the People argued that, in Duntsch's hands, surgical tools became "deadly weapons." Though they only prosecuted the Efurd case, they had contended that the disgraced former doctor had "intentionally, knowingly and recklessly" injured up to 15 patients, maiming four and causing at least two deaths between July 2012 and June 2013, when his medical license was finally suspended.

And according to multiple media investigations, civil lawsuits and the criminal indictments filed against Duntsch, it was actually so much worse.

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Before deciding whether or not to take on the role, Jackson explained, he listened to the Wondery podcast Dr. Death that inspired the series.

"I found myself not only being creeped out and horrified by what I was hearing," he recalled, "but I found myself wanting to know why. How did this happen? How did this man come to be? How did he keep on doing these awful things? Who the hell was he?"

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When the Texas Medical Board suspended Duntsch's license to practice in June 2013, citing the deaths as well as two other incidents, one of which included the doctor leaving a surgical sponge inside a patient's chest, their ruling stated that he failed "to follow appropriate preoperative planning standards and failing to recognize and respond to complications during surgery and postoperatively puts Dr. Duntsch's patients at significant risk of harm and has resulted in at least two patient deaths."

His license was permanently revoked that December.

But fearing that he would just pack up and move to another state, Dr. Randall Kirby and Dr. Robert Henderson—both of whom had blown the whistle on Duntsch to the state medical board months before his license was taken away—kept at the Dallas County District Attorney's Office to press charges.

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According to the Texas Observer, which reported in 2013 on the state's various laws that created a favorable environment for Duntsch to practice with impunity in the Dallas area for more than two years, Kirby had assisted Duntsch on a spinal fusion procedure for patient Barry Morguloff at Baylor Regional Medical Center of Plano in January 2012 and was appalled by what he witnessed. (Morguloff's lawyer said that he suffered severe pain for months after the surgery and scans later revealed fragments of vertebrae lodged in the nerves of his back.)

"His performance was pathetic," Kirby wrote to the Texas Medical Board in early 2013. "He was functioning at a first- or second-year neurosurgical resident level but had no apparent insight into how bad his technique was."

Three weeks after Morgulloff's procedure, Duntsch operated on Jerry Summers, a friend of his since childhood in need of a spinal fusion. Summers ended up paralyzed, despite a senior surgeon's best efforts to correct the damage wrought by Duntsch, Kirby alleged. Baylor Regional suspended Duntsch for 30 days and ordered his future surgeries to be supervised.

Then, on March 12, 2012, 55-year-old Kellie Martin, who'd been experiencing back pain after a fall, died after Duntsch performed what was supposed to be a simple spinal procedure, during which he was not supervised.

"He talked impressive," her husband, Don Martin, told the Texas Observer of Duntsch. "He was very eloquent in stating the causes and the need for the procedure. He felt confident. We felt confident too."

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Duntsch never operated again at Baylor Regional.

Because he resigned and, four months later, moved on to Dallas Medical Center, which granted him temporary surgical privileges in July 2012 while waiting for his records to come over from his previous hospital. A preliminary background check turned up no issues.

Henderson, another neurosurgeon at DMC, told the Observer that Duntsch did relay the outcomes of the surgeries on Summers and Martin to hospital administrators, but gave other reasons for why they went wrong, insisting neither was his fault. He was allowed a trial run of five surgeries.

There were no problems with the first surgery. The next day, patient Floella Brown, in for a cervical fusion, ended up brain dead after her vertebral artery was damaged during the procedure, after which Duntsch went incommunicado and no one could reach him for 90 minutes. Brown suffered a stroke and was transferred to UT Southwestern Medical Center, where she died, according to Texas Medical Board records.

The day after Duntsch operated on Brown, Mary Efurd woke up from spinal fusion surgery barely able to move her legs.

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Sent in two days later to fix metal fusion hardware that a scan showed was not where it was supposed to be in Efurd's back, Henderson was so appalled by what had been done to her body, he checked with the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, where Duntsch had done his residency, to make sure he was an actual surgeon and not a conman.

"I couldn't believe a trained surgeon could do this," Henderson told the Texas Observer in 2013. "[Duntsch] just had no recognition of the proper anatomy. He had no idea what he was doing. 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."

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When he contacted the medical board, Henderson told the Observer, they said he could file a complaint and they'd probably be able to review it in about 30 days.

"I said, 'You don't seem to understand. This guy already killed somebody, made another a quad, made a partial paraplegic out of my patient,'" the doctor recalled saying. "I said, 'He needs to be stopped. Not only shouldn't he be operating, he shouldn't be making any decisions about treatment or pathology.' It had no effect whatsoever."

Duntsch was, however, fired and the Dallas Medical Center CEO reported him to the medical board as well. But to even suspend a license, state law required the board to first find evidence of a pattern of wrongdoing. And that took time, during which no background check, let alone a precursory Google search by a patient trying to do due diligence, would have found any issue on Duntsch's record with the Texas Medical Board.

"His resume's about 12 pages long, so he looks really good on paper," Shughart, the lead prosecutor on the case, said on the 2021 CNBC special The Real Dr. Death, "exactly the kind of doctor that you'd be looking for."

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According to Dallas' D Magazine, in December 2012 Jacqueline Troy emerged from a cervical fusion, performed by Duntsch at Legacy Surgery Center of Frisco, with paralyzed vocal cords, her trachea and esophagus inexplicably connected. (The damage was partially corrected two weeks later at Texas Health Presbyterian Dallas, according to Kirby's complaint to the Texas Medical Board). And in January 2013 one of his patients at University General Hospital Dallas, where Duntsch was granted privileges to perform minimally invasive procedures, woke up from surgery paralyzed from the waist down, the patient's lawyer told the Observer.

On June 14, 2013, Kirby got a call to come to University General to repair the damage from another botched surgery. Jeffrey Glidewell, left untreated in the ICU for two days while his surgeon insisted he was fine, was the last person Duntsch ever operated on. He was the patient whose chest was sewn up with a sponge inside.

After his license was revoked for good that December, Duntsch's personal issues reportedly escalated. He was arrested for alleged driving under the influence while staying with his parents in Colorado, police noting in their report that there was an empty Mike's Hard Lemonade bottle on the floor of the car and a full one in the console, plus Duntsch was driving on two flat tires.

Per D Magazine, in September 2014 he was arrested for allegedly jumping the fence at the Garland, Texas, home of his ex-girlfriend's sister. The family said he let himself in through an unlocked back door, removed his young son from the child's grandmother's arms, and drove off with him—while his ex was at the hospital giving birth to their second child. Per a police report reviewed by the Texas Observer, his ex, Wendy Renee Young, said there had been a misunderstanding and that her family never got along with Duntsch.

Young said she met Duntsch in 2011 at a bar in Memphis and then moved back to Dallas, her hometown, to be with him. While they were living together and she was pregnant with their first child, he started dating Kimberly Morgan, one of the nurses he hired that same year to assist him at the Minimally Invasive Spine Institute. Morgan then helped Duntsch set up his own practice, the Texas Neurosurgical Institute.

In a December 2011 email to Morgan, submitted as evidence in his criminal trial, Duntsch wrote, "Anyone close to me thinks that I am something between God, Einstein and the anti-Christ because how can I do anything I want and cross every discipline boundary like it's a playground and never lose. 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." (The defense argued that he may have just been being sarcastic.)

He was arrested again in April 2015 for allegedly trying to shoplift $887 worth of items from a Walmart, including the pair of pants he was wearing when he attempted to leave the store.

Three months later, the Dallas County District Attorney's Office filed indictments alleging five counts of aggravated assault causing bodily injury, a second-degree felony, and one count of harming an elderly person, a first-degree felony. Duntsch pleaded not guilty, telling D Magazine in emails from jail where he was awaiting trial that he was a victim of a vast conspiracy to extort money from the hospitals where he had operated.

Multiple lawsuits were filed against Baylor Regional Medical Center accusing the facility of harboring a surgeon whom administrators knew had caused serious harm.

By the end of 2016, all but one plaintiff, Less Passmore—who alleged he suffered lifelong complications from a Dec. 2011 surgery performed by Duntsch—had settled and signed NDAs, according to a November 2016 cover story in D Magazine, the first to dub Duntsch "Dr. Death."

According to D Magazine, Dr. Mark Hoyle—the general surgeon tasked with making the initial incision and sewing Passmore up when it was done—canceled every other procedure on his schedule that involved Duntsch and later was one of the doctors who complained about him to the Texas Medical Board.

In his own letter to the board, Dr. Randall Kirby wrote, "I agree completely with Dr. Hoyle's complaint to the board when he stated that Dr. Duntsch is the most careless, clueless, and dangerous spine surgeon either of us has ever seen."

And in February 2017, after four hours of deliberations, Duntsch was convicted of injuring an elderly person, Mary Efurd. Her case was the only count the prosecution decided to take to trial, but it subsequently—after one injured victim after another testified during the penalty phase—resulted in him being locked up for the rest of his life.

"I think it's going to be like a floodgate that's going to really open, crying. I'll do some crying," Efurd told reporters after the guilty verdict. "And I'll reflect back on how difficult those first months were afterwards. I had so much anger, because my life changed so much. I was very independent and I had to become dependent on others for transportation, for my meals, for a lot of things. I think all of us will be thinking about things like this, and hopefully there will be some tighter controls, more accountability in a lot of areas so something like this won't happen again. It shouldn't happen again."

Kellie Martin's daughter, Caitlin-Martin Linduff, tearfully told WFAA-TV after the sentencing, "This will not bring my mother back, but it is some sense of justice for all of the families, for all of the victims."

Jerry Summers, the childhood friend rendered quadriplegic after Duntsch operated on him a decade ago, died in February of an infection that, according to his lawyer, was connected to his condition, which Duntsch had caused.

Duntsch could be charged in connection with Summers' death, attorney Jeffrey Rosenblum told Memphis' Local 24 News, but his client had previously forgiven his friend and probably wouldn't have wanted that.

Though their relationship had certainly suffered.

According to ProPublica, when Summers was deposed by the prosecution in his pal's criminal case in 2017, he recalled waking up one morning while he was still in the hospital following his surgery and screaming at the nurses that he and Dundst had been up late the night before the procedure doing eight-balls of cocaine. They had spent the evening together, but only having dinner and watching a game at a local restaurant.

Summers admitted in his deposition to embellishing, saying, "I was just really mad and hollering and wanting him to be there. And so I made a statement that was not something that was necessarily true...The statement was only made so that he might hear it and go, 'Let me get my ass down there.'"

Baylor Regional did order Duntsch and Kimberly Morgan to take drug tests after hearing Summers' accusation, ProPublica reported. Morgan did so immediately and it came up clean. Duntsch stalled at first, explaining that he got lost on the way to the lab. He passed a subsequent psychological evaluation and, three weeks later (after his 30-day suspension), was allowed to return to the operating theater, although he was only allowed to do so-called minor procedures.

His first minor procedure was Kellie Martin.

On an April 2017 episode of Crime Watch Daily With Chris Hansen, widower Don Martin recalled, "Kellie even asked Dr. Duntsch, 'Have you ever had any bad outcomes or deaths on your surgeries,' and he said , 'No, knock on wood.'"

Dr. Death is streaming now on Peacock.

For more true crime updates on your need-to-know cases, head to Oxygen.com.