Get to Know the Real-Life Tragedy Behind ‘Dr. Death’
One hour is all it took for a jury in Dallas to decide in 2017 that Christopher Duntsch deserved life in prison for dozens of botched surgeries.
The former North Texas neurosurgeon—and subject of the Peacock drama Dr. Death—received a life sentence for causing serious bodily injury to an elderly person in the case of Mary Efurd. But Duntsch botched the spinal surgeries of 32 patients at various hospitals, leaving two paralyzed and two others dead, according to KTVT-TV.
Duntsch’s story was the basis of the shocking 2018 Wondery podcast Dr. Death (hosted by former Dallas Morning News journalist Laura Beil), which spawned a new TV drama. Also titled Dr. Death, the series premieres July 15 with Joshua Jackson in the lead as Duntsch. Alec Baldwin and Christian Slater costar as, respectively, spine surgeon Robert Henderson and vascular surgeon Randall Kirby—both doctors who saw Duntsch’s work firsthand.
During his trial, Duntsch’s defense attorneys argued that he was an inexperienced surgeon, as KTVT-TV reported at the time of his conviction. But prosecutors accused the defendant of “intentionally, knowingly, and recklessly” harming his patients, saying that he had emailed his girlfriend in 2011 about becoming “a cold-blooded killer.”
Efurd, wheelchair-bound since Duntsch performed her 2012 spinal surgery, said she felt relief after his sentencing. “Finally, justice has been done after four and a half years,” she observed. “And I hope I’m speaking for all the other families and their loved ones also. I think we feel real good about it.… You know, when they finally got his license suspended, I cried for two days. It was just relief that didn’t stop.”
Henderson testified at the trial that Duntsch’s operation on Efurd was “as egregious as you can imagine” and that his former colleague had “done virtually everything wrong” during surgery, per The Dallas Morning News.
Meanwhile, more than a dozen patients testified that Duntsch had maimed them in the OR. Jurors heard from Jeff Cheney, paralyzed from the neck down on one side of his body; Philip Mayfield, who suffers chronic pain and often passes out; and Jackie Troy, who woke up from her neck surgery with puncture wounds in her throat. “I’m just trying to stay focused and be thankful that I’m one of the lucky ones in this situation,” Troy said during the trial, according to the newspaper.
Duntsch’s patients Kellie Martin and Floella Brown died after he performed back surgery on them in 2012.
“Really, who he is was someone who called himself a cold-blooded killer,” Justin McCants of the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office said at the trial. “Someone who calls himself a god at times, who believed he was a god at times.”
Earlier this year, another victim of the botched surgeries passed away. Jerry Summers, a childhood friend of Duntsch, died of an infection after his 2011 cervical fusion surgery under Duntsch’s scalpel left him a quadriplegic, according to WATN-TV. “I was very moved by Jerry,” Beil said in The Dallas Morning News. “He has a lot of complicated feelings because this was his best friend who did this, and it changed his life profoundly.”
As for the rest of the people affected by Duntsch’s crimes, Caitlin Martin-Linduff, daughter of the late Kellie Martin, told the Morning News they’ve become “almost become like a family,” adding, “It helps to be able to grieve alongside them and know we’re not alone.”
Dr. Death, Series premiere, Thursday, July 15, Peacock