The Autopsy of Dr Death: An Interview With Laura Beil

Ryan Syrek, MA


October 10, 2018

Laura Beil is a health and science writer who won the 2018 Victor Cohn Prize for Excellence in Medical Science Reporting from the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing.

Laura Beil

One of her latest projects, Dr. Death, is an incredibly popular six-part podcast from Wondery that explores the case of Christopher Duntsch. The neurosurgeon is alleged to have injured 33 patients and was convicted of a first-degree felony for maiming a patient during a spinal fusion surgery. We spoke with Beil about what insights the medical community can take away from Duntsch's case and how to prevent the next "Dr Death."

Medscape: For those who haven't listened yet, can you briefly describe who "Dr Death" is and what the podcast explores?

Beil: Christopher Duntsch was a neurosurgeon in Dallas. He came to Dallas around 2011, and he operated for about 2 years. During that time, he operated on 38 people and he injured 33 of them. Twenty of those are permanent injuries. He was a horrible surgeon.

The podcast looks not only at the story of Duntsch but also how he was able to operate for 2 years. He was passed from hospital to hospital, and patients had no idea how bad he was when they went to him. This isn't just the story of Christopher Duntsch. It is a story about a complete system breakdown that allowed this to happen.

The first episode highlights how bad a surgeon he was. The most detailed surgery description is in that first episode. It's of Mary Efurd's surgery. There were a couple of reasons for this. The first is because her surgery was central to his prosecution. I thought that was important because listeners needed to know. It was hard to listen to, I don't doubt. Honestly, that first episode script was probably rewritten 10 times. It was important that listeners know right away how bad he really was.

He wasn't just a little bit bad. He was making errors that surgeons never make. Other cases also stand out. Jerry Summers, who was left paralyzed, is obviously a tragedy. He was Duntsch's best friend. That's truly horrible. Another patient, Philip Mayfield, shocked me because these were things I had never heard of after his surgery—such things as his skin feeling like it's on fire and peeling off. I had never heard of nerve damage like that. His wife says he gets in the shower and it's like his body's being hit with acid. His life is ruined.

Christopher Duntsch

On the police tape, you hear Duntsch going through these cases. He'd say, "There was this little complication and whatever" or "I was just a little bit out to the midline" or "Everything was routine, but I found a tumor in his neck." But he didn't find a tumor! And he's still saying that. As one of the other doctors said, "Either he's just completely detached from reality, or he is a pathological liar."

In some ways this is a horrible, scary tale [about doctors]. In some ways, it's not. Because doctors saved the day on this, too. Had they not, who knows what would have happened? Because hospital administrators certainly were not doing what they should have done.

Medscape: To your knowledge, is this still the only time that a doctor has been prosecuted for what has happened in surgery?

Beil: Yes. Other doctors have been prosecuted as criminals, but only when they were clearly intentionally killing patients or doing something wrong. He's the only doctor for whom the way in which he did his surgery was deemed to be a criminal act.


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