Placeholder Image

Subtitles section Play video

  • Ever since his surgery in 2012, Lee Passmore has lived in chronic pain.

  • He can't feel his feet.

  • His right leg is stiff and he struggles to walk.

  • But he's one of the lucky ones, he could be dead.

  • Passmore was the first in a long line of patients who ended up being maimed or killed by Dr.

  • Christopher Duntsch.

  • During two years of practicing medicine in and around Dallas, Texas Duntsch operated

  • on thirty-seven patients.

  • Thirty-three of those patients were injured during or as a result of the surgery, some

  • suffering rare or unusual complications.

  • Three patients died, two in the hospital within hours of their surgery.

  • As Duntsch's negligence and failures began to come to light, a magazine published a cover

  • story with the headline β€œDr. Death”; the nickname stuck.

  • So what went wrong?

  • After the first few botched surgeries, why was this incompetent doctor allowed to continue

  • to perform operations?

  • Was anyone paying attention?

  • Ultimately, when authorities finally looked into Duntsch's history, they were shocked

  • at how he had flown under the radar time and time again.

  • Let's start at the beginning: After receiving his undergraduate degree in 1995, Duntsch

  • enrolled at the University of Tennessee at Memphis College of Medicine, in an ambitious

  • program to earn both an M.D. and a Ph.D. He earned his dual degrees in 2001 and 2002.

  • Duntsch was tall, confident--some would say arrogant, and had a persuasive charm when

  • he talked.

  • While not the brightest, he had a reputation as a hard worker.

  • Although much later, in sworn testimony an ex-girlfriend of one of his closest friends

  • claimed Duntsch liked to party.

  • She described a drug-fueled, all-night birthday celebration for Duntsch about midway through

  • his residency.

  • Apparently, partygoers snorted cocaine, popped pills and drank.

  • Early the next morning, Duntsch slipped on his white coat and headed for rounds at the

  • hospital as usual.

  • Duntsch also took part in a neurosurgery residency program at the University of Tennessee Health

  • Science Center, and subsequently completed a spine fellowship program there as well.

  • As part of the program, Duntsch worked in a research lab, studying stem cells.

  • For a while he pursued a career in biotechnology and even worked for a company exploring the

  • potential of stem cells.

  • However he eventually fell out of favor with his colleagues and was forced to leave.

  • Per the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education, a neurosurgery resident

  • does about 1,000 operations during training.

  • But according to records, by the time Duntsch finished his residency and fellowship, he

  • had operated fewer than 100 times.

  • Once Duntsch's negligence came to light, the media reached out to the University of

  • Tennessee.

  • The school, citing student record confidentiality, wouldn't comment on Duntsch.

  • Off the record the chief of neurosurgery at the hospital where Duntsch did his residency

  • said that there was once an anonymous complaint filed.

  • Allegedly Duntsch was impaired by drugs while seeing patients.

  • Duntsch ended up being sent to a program for impaired physicians.

  • Afterwards he was allowed to continue his surgical training under close supervision.

  • In the summer of 2011, Duntsch took his first job as a practicing physician at the Minimally

  • Invasive Spine Institute in Plano, Texas.

  • He also received privileges to operate at Baylor Regional Medical Center.

  • The hospital gave him a base salary of $600,000 a year for two years.

  • A lot of money to be sure, but not unusual, as neurosurgeons bring in millions in yearly

  • revenue hospitals.

  • Both workplaces had received glowing recommendations from Duntsch's medical school.

  • Within a few months Duntsch had been dismissed from the Spine Institute for dereliction of

  • duty.

  • Duntsch had gone to Las Vegas on a weekend he was supposed to be looking after a patient

  • he had operated on.

  • However, Duntsch still had operating privileges at Baylor-Plano.

  • In the winter of 2011, 36 year old Lee Passmore saw a pain management specialist.

  • Previously he had had back surgery, unfortunately the pain had returned.

  • His pain specialist advised against having another operation, but then mentioned that

  • he had recently met a neurosurgeon and gave Passmore Duntsch's card.

  • On Dec. 30, 2011, Duntsch set out to perform an anterior/posterior lumbar fusion surgery

  • on Passmore.

  • This procedure uses metal implants and bone grafts to stabilize adjoining vertebrae.

  • A vascular surgeon, Dr. Mark Hoyle was on hand to assist with the operation.

  • It was Hoyle's job to open Passmore and sew him up.

  • Hoyle began by making a small incision just above Passmore's groin.

  • He moved the blood vessels and organs out of the way, allowing Duntsch clear access

  • to the lower spine to remove a herniated disc which was pinching a nerve.

  • Hoyle watched in alarm as Passmore began to bleed profusely when Duntsch began to cut

  • out a ligament around the spinal cord not typically disturbed in such spinal fusion

  • procedures.

  • As the surgery continued, Hoyle became more and more concerned with Duntsch's actions.

  • Eventually he blocked Duntsch from continuing the procedure, because he felt that irreversible

  • damage was being done to the patient.

  • Then Hoyle left the operating room and vowed never to work with Duntsch again.

  • 45 year old Barry Morgulof was Duntsch's next patient.

  • Morguloff had worn his back out unloading trucks for his father's import company.

  • During his appointment with Duntsch, Morguloff was impressed with his easy manner and confident

  • promises to fix Morguloff's back.

  • On Jan. 11, 2012, Duntsch performed an anterior lumbar spinal fusion on Morguloff.

  • Dr. Kirby, the assisting vascular surgeon, observed that instead of using a scalpel,

  • Duntsch tried to pull Morguloff's problem disk out with a grabbing instrument that could

  • damage the spine.

  • Dr. Kirby argued with Duntsch and then left the operating room.

  • When Morguloff awoke, he had searing pain in his back and left leg.

  • Several months later he had to have a second operation to remove bone fragments lodged

  • in his spinal canal caused by the first operation.

  • The repairing surgeon fixed what damage he could, but to this day Morguloff still walks

  • with a cane.

  • As scar tissue builds up, Morguloff's pain will worsen and his range of motion will decrease.

  • One day, he will likely be in a wheelchair.

  • Throughout the spring Duntsch performed several more surgeries.

  • In February, he performed an elective spinal fusion on Jerry Summers, his roommate and

  • childhood friend.

  • Jerry suffered from chronic pain from a high school football injury that had gotten worse

  • after a car accident.

  • After surgery, when Summers awoke he was quadriplegic.

  • According to doctors who later reviewed the case, Duntsch had damaged Summers' vertebral

  • artery, causing massive bleeding.

  • To stop the bleeding, Duntsch packed the space with so much anticoagulant that it squeezed

  • Summers' spine.

  • Summers made the startling claim that the night before the surgery he and Duntsch had

  • done cocaine.

  • Later he would recant under oath, explaining that at the time he just wanted to make trouble

  • for Duntsch.

  • However, Baylor-Plano took the accusation seriously and ordered Duntsch to take a drug

  • test.

  • Duntsch missed his test appointment, telling administrators he got lost on the way to the

  • lab.

  • However, he passed a separate psychological evaluation and, after three weeks, was allowed

  • to operate again, but he was told to stick to relatively minor procedures.

  • In March, Duntsch operated on Kellie Martin, a schoolteacher who had a compressed nerve

  • from falling off a ladder while trying to retrieve Christmas decorations.

  • She went to Duntsch for a laminectomy, also known as decompression surgery, a straightforward,

  • common procedure.

  • However, within a few hours of her operation Martin bled to death internally.

  • An autopsy discovered that Duntsch had cut a major blood vessel in her spinal cord, but

  • the death was ruled accidental.

  • Baylor-Plano again ordered Duntsch to take a drug test.

  • His first screening came back diluted with tap water, but a second, taken a few days

  • later, came up clean.

  • Hospital administrators also organized a review of Duntsch's cases.

  • As a result they ended his operating privileges at the facility.

  • However, Baylor-Plano allowed Duntsch to resign rather than be fired.

  • Since Duntsch's departure was technically voluntary and his leave had been for less

  • than 31 days, Baylor-Plano was under no obligation to report him to the National Practitioner

  • Data Bank.

  • Established in 1990, this database tracks malpractice payouts and adverse actions taken

  • against doctors, such as being fired, barred from Medicare, handed a long suspension, or

  • having a license suspended or revoked.

  • Medical facilities and state licensing boards are required to query the database when considering

  • applicants for clinical privileges.

  • Basically, the database is supposed to prevent bad doctors from moving from hospital to hospital.

  • However, hospitals sometimes will allow a doctor to resign instead of dismissing them.The

  • hospitals worry about perceived legal liability; reporting a doctor may hurt their job prospects

  • or even prompt lawsuits which will blow back on the hospital.

  • So if possible, some hospitals will invite a bad doctor to resign and sweep the mess

  • under the rug.

  • Baylor-Plano's decision not to fire Duntsch and also not to report him to the Texas Medical

  • State Board had a devastating effect.

  • Duntsch moved on to Dallas Medical Center.

  • On July 24, 2012, Duntsch operated on 64 year old Floella Brown, a retiring banker.

  • During the surgery, Brown bled so much that the operating room nurses had to put towels

  • on the floor to soak up the lake of red.

  • After the operation, Brown woke up and seemed fine, but several hours later she lost consciousness.

  • Pressure was building inside her brain.

  • She was moved to the ICU while doctors tried to figure out what was going on.

  • While Brown was still in the ICU, Duntsch performed another surgery on active 71 year

  • old Mary Efurd.

  • She had sought Duntsch's help because she was experiencing back pain when trying to

  • use the treadmill.

  • Brown never regained consciousness, and within a few days her family removed her from life

  • support.

  • Later an investigation would find that Duntsch had both pierced and blocked her vertebral

  • artery with a misplaced screw.

  • Efurd woke up from her surgery in agony.

  • She couldn't turn over or wiggle her toes.

  • The hospital called Dr. Robert Henderson, a Dallas spine surgeon.

  • When Dr. Henderson performed emergency repair surgery on Efurd the day after her original

  • surgery, he was horrified at how badly it had been botched.

  • Unfortunately, he could only do so much to repair the damage.

  • Efurd never regained her mobility and now uses a wheelchair.

  • WIthin a week of the 2 surgeries, hospital administrators told Duntsch he could no longer

  • operate at Dallas Medical Center.

  • But, just like Baylor-Plano, Duntsch was allowed to resign and the hospital didn't notify

  • the National Practitioner Data Bank.

  • However, by this time other physicians had taken note of Duntsch's track record.

  • Dr. Hoyle, who had once assisted Duntsch on a surgery, submitted a complaint to the Texas

  • State medical board.

  • Dr. Henderson began to investigate Duntsch on his own and contacted some of his former

  • co-workers, and professors to get a better picture.

  • But Duntsch was able to move onto yet another hospital where he caused patient's Jacqueline

  • Troy's vocal cords to become paralyzed.

  • She had to have emergency repair surgery.

  • When Duntsch moved on to yet another hospital, Dr. Henderson notified them of Duntsch's

  • surgery record.

  • However, Duntsch was able to submit recommendations he received from medical school.

  • When contacted by Dr. Henderson, Duntsch's former fellowship supervisor, said that they

  • responded positively because Duntsch had completed the training satisfactorily.

  • Not only were they not asked about Duntsch's current actions, they couldn't comment on

  • those actions, it was all hearsay.

  • Meanwhile, a few months after his surgery, Passmore, no longer able to meet the physical

  • demands of his job as a medical investigator, was forced to resign to access his long-term

  • disability insurance.

  • He began to investigate Duntsch.

  • A few other patients or the family of deceased patients consulted lawyers.

  • However, Texas enacted tort reform in 2003 which capped plaintiffs damages for malpractice

  • at $250,000.

  • Also to successfully sue a hospital or doctor for malpractice, it must be proven that the

  • facility acted with malice, which can be incredibly difficult.

  • The lawsuits that generally go forward hinge on economic damages, such as lost earning

  • power, which the law does not limit in non-death cases However, many of Duntsch's patients

  • were disabled, older or on Medicare insurance and had limited resources.

  • It was hard to find lawyers that were willing to take their cases.

  • Duntsch managed to move to yet another facility, University General Hospital.

  • The last straw came on June 10, 2013 when Duntsch performed a cervical fusion on a 49-year-old

  • Jeffrey Glidewell.

  • After the surgery Glidewell had severe pain and trouble swallowing.

  • Dr. Kirby did emergency surgery and found a significant esophageal injury that affected

  • Glidewell's ability to breathe.

  • He also found a sponge that had been left in the soft tissue of Glidewell's neck.

  • Dr. Kirby quickly filed a complaint with the Texas Medical Board.

  • Finally an institution weighed in and University General Hospital also reported Duntsch.

  • On June 26, 2013, nearly a year after Dr. Henderson first complained about Duntsch β€” and

  • three days after Dr. Kirby's complaint, the Texas Medical Board, finally ordered a

  • temporary suspension of Duntsch's license while they continued their investigation.

  • Soon afterward, surgeons Kirby and Henderson made an unusual move.

  • They met with a prosecutor at the Dallas County district attorney's office to discuss possible

  • criminal charges against Duntsch.

  • Generally physician discipline is handled by hospital, medical boards and malpractice

  • lawsuits.

  • The doctors worried that Duntsch would be able to get his license reinstated.

  • They decided to use any tool at their disposal to make sure that didn't happen.

  • On Dec. 6, 2013, the Texas Medical board, having considered both evidence and a rebuttal

  • report from Duntsch, finally revoked his license to practice medicine.

  • After his medical license was revoked, Duntsch spiraled.

  • He moved to Colorado to live with his parents and declared bankruptcy, claiming debts of

  • around $1 million.

  • In January of 2014 he was arrested for DUI.

  • In March 2015 Duntsch had a public breakdown and was taken for a psychiatric evaluation.

  • In April he attempted to shoplift some $887 worth of merchandise from Walmart and was

  • arrested.

  • When a local newspaper ran a story about him, in the comment section underneath the article,

  • Duntsch responded with several very long tirades against everyone he thought had conspired

  • against him.

  • Meanwhile, in the fall of 2014, the Texas Department of State Health Services, which

  • oversees hospitals, began an investigation of how Duntsch's employment and dismissal

  • was handled by Baylor Plano, Dallas Medical and University General Hospitals.

  • Ultimately, the hospitals would get a slap on the wrist.

  • On July 21, 2015, Duntsch was arrested.

  • Prosecutors charged him with one count of injury to an elderly person and five counts

  • of assault.

  • It was a challenging case to build because no surgeon had ever been criminally prosecuted

  • for negligence during surgery.

  • The authorities struggled to figure out what crimes he could b