It took a jury just four hours to convict Christopher Duntsch of a first degree felony for harming an elderly woman in his operating room. He stared forward, seemingly in a daze, after the verdict was read, just as he had for the two weeks of testimony. Duntsch’s case is perhaps unique to the justice system—it’s incredibly rare for a surgeon to be indicted, much less convicted, for the care he or she provided. But Duntsch was uniquely egregious.
He was indicted on five counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and a single count of harming an elderly person. The prosecution chose to try the latter charge and built a macabre road map of patients that ended with the elderly victim, Mary Efurd, on the surgical table at Dallas Medical Center in 2012. She was 74 at the time of her surgery, what should’ve been a simple fusion of two vertebrae. Yet she woke up with severe pain from the fusion hardware being misplaced in her soft muscle. She had severed nerve roots and misplaced screw holes on the opposite side of her spine.
Seated in a wheelchair in a turquoise jumpsuit, she spoke to reporters with tears in her eyes moments after the verdict.
“I think it’s going to be like a floodgate that’s going to really open, crying. I’ll do some crying. 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,” she said. “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.”…
The state argued that Duntsch, who earned an MD and a PhD at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center in Memphis, knew that his outcomes were so poor that Efurd was likely to wind up injured under his knife. To illustrate, they explored the cases of Jerry Summers (left a quadriplegic), Floella Brown (suffered a massive stroke after significant blood loss), Kellie Martin (bled to death after having her vertebral artery sliced), Barry Morguloff (bone fragments lodged in his spinal canal caused massive pain and the inability for him to raise his foot), and Lee Passmore (nerve damage and a misplaced spinal cage)….
In all, prosecutors identified more than 30 patients who suffered harm at the hands of Duntsch. Many of them will testify during the sentencing phase, which begins on Wednesday. Duntsch faces life in prison. Philip Mayfield sat outside the courtroom after the verdict, clutching a cane. He says he can’t feel the right side of his body, that Duntsch cut through a critical spinal nerve while trying to treat a herniated disc.
“There was no mercy that he showed, no compassion that he showed towards any of the patients,” Mayfield said. “Physically, I’m nowhere near what I intended on being. I’m a lot worse. It was supposed to be a minor procedure to relieve some pain in my arms … and he ended up cutting into my spinal cord.”
The defense called just one expert witness. On Monday, Dr. Carlos Bagley, the director of the Neurological Surgery Spine program at UT Southwestern, took the stand and joined the choir of surgeons who have called Duntsch’s surgical techniques poor and the outcomes “sub-optimal.” But he argued that the blame extended beyond Duntsch. It was the failure of the system as a whole—Baylor Regional Medical Center at Plano did not refer Duntsch to the National Practitioners Databank after Kellie Martin bled to death and he gave up his privileges. The renowned Memphis neurosurgeon Dr. Kevin Foley allowed him to leave a yearlong minimally invasive spine fellowship and did not mention hearing of adverse outcomes when hospitals in Dallas contacted him for a reference. The University of Tennessee Health Science Center allowed him to practice after residency and medical school, despite his skills being questionable. The Texas Medical Board allowed him to keep his license for more than a year after first being notified. Dallas Medical Center CEO Raji Kumar did not inform the hospital’s chief medical officer that Duntsch had self-reported a bad outcome and resigned from Baylor Plano. (Dallas Medical Center is where Efurd and Brown were operated on.)
“For the number of catastrophic injuries that occurred over a short period of time, it would be hard-pressed for those deficiencies to not show during training,” Bagley said. “This was a complete and utter failure of the entire system of checks and balances for patient safety.”