Dr Death, a new show coming to Peacock on Thursday (15 July), is based on the real-life story of Christopher Duntsch, a former neurosurgeon who was – as one ProPublica headline famously put it – “so bad it was criminal”.
Joshua Jackson stars as Duntsch, now 50 and serving a life sentence after being convicted in 2017 of maiming one of his patients. Duntsch has been accused of injuring 33 patients during surgeries. Two of his patients died; at least two others now need wheelchairs after losing mobility.
Duntsch’s story was first told in a podcast – also titled Dr Death – released in September 2018 by Wondery, a studio now owned by Amazon. GQ called it “the scariest podcast of the year”, deeming it “almost too difficult to listen to”. The first season consists of 10 episodes that explore Duntsch’s background as well as his medical career. It investigates his personal life and questions the system that let him go seemingly undetected for years.
“He sewed up one man’s throat with a bloody sponge inside. He operated on his own friend and surgically detached his spinal column from the base of his skull, effectively decapitating him and leaving him paralysed from the neck down,” GQ listed.
“A former colleague found a horror show when he performed follow-up surgery on one of Duntsch’s patients: Screws meant for her spine driven instead into muscle tissue, three holes in bone where Duntsch had repeatedly tried to set a screw, and a completely missing nerve root that Duntsch apparently amputated, leaving the woman unable to move her leg.”
Born in Montana and raised in Memphis, Tennessee, Duntsch initially pursued an athletic career in US football – doggedly so, according to former classmates. “He had his goal, his sight on a goal and whatever it took to get there,” one unnamed classmate told ProPublica. “He wanted to go to college and play, and I can recall he was like 180 pounds and said, ‘I need to get to 220’ in order to be a linebacker at Colorado or Colorado State.”
Duntsch made some progress but lost his eligibility to play football after enrolling at University of Memphis, having transferred through multiple universities. It was then, according to ProPublica, that he started focusing on the medical field.
He graduated from the University of Tennessee at Memphis College of Medicine with an MD as well as a PhD. For a few years, he worked at a company focused on cell-based therapy. He first found employment as a practicing physician in Texas in 2011. Quickly, the pattern that would go on to define his career emerged. Duntsch operated on patients who came to him often with chronic pain issues, eyebrows were raised along the way, including from fellow surgeons who were surprised or shocked during his procedures, but the system didn’t provide any efficient way to hold Duntsch accountable.
Also in 2011, court testimony would later reveal, Duntsch wrote to his assistant and ex-girlfriend in an email: “Unfortunately, you cannot understand that I am building an empire and I am so far outside the box that the Earth is small and the sun is bright. 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.”
Jerry Summers, a friend of Duntsch’s, was left unable to move from the neck down after Duntsch operated on him. Another, Kellie Martin, bled to death after a botched procedure. In July 2012, Duntsch performed surgery on Mary Efurd, a woman in her seventies who lost mobility and was left needing a wheelchair after the procedure. “It was as if he knew everything to do,” Henderson told ProPublica of Duntsch, “and then he’d done virtually everything wrong.”
Two physicians, Dr Randall Kirby and Dr Robert Henderson (portrayed respectively in Peacock’s adaptation by Christian Slater and Alec Baldwin), worked to keep Duntsch from performing surgeries, alerting the state medical board. After a months-long investigation, Duntsch’s licence to practise medicine was permanently revoked.
Prosecutors began looking into the allegations against Duntsch, and in July 2015 charged him with five counts of aggravated assault and one count of injury to an elderly person related to Efurd’s surgery.
Duntsch’s trial revolved around the latter charge. His defence team argued that he was merely a bad surgeon, not a criminal. Of the “cold-blooded killer” email, defence attorney Robbie McClung said the tone was unclear and Duntsch could have been sarcastic in the message to Morgan. “I think everyone is reading an awful lot into an email,” she told the court.
Nonetheless, a jury found Duntsch guilty of the injury to an elderly person charge after about four hours of deliberating on 14 February 2017, TheDallas Morning News reported at the time. Duntsch faced anywhere from five years to life in prison, or he could also have been put on probation. Just a few days later, a jury sentenced him to life in prison. He has been serving his sentence at Ellis Unit in Huntsville, Texas, and will become eligible for parole on 20 July 2045.
Dr Death is streaming on Peacock now