Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Dr. Death 2

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.”


1 comment:

  1. Life in prison.

    Those were the words that Christopher Duntsch never wanted to hear. And the words that his patients and their families desperately wanted to hear.

    The one-time neurosurgeon was sentenced by the 12-member jury to spend the remainder of his life behind bars Monday afternoon.

    “This was a voice for Kellie,” said Don Martin, whose wife bled to death after one of those botched surgeries in 2012.

    His daughter, Caitlin Martin-Linduff, was relieved and tearful to know Duntsch will never hurt anyone again.

    “I’m just so grateful from the bottom of my heart,” she said. “This will not bring my mother back, but it is some sense of justice for the all the families, for all of the victims.”

    Duntsch, 44, is the first surgeon known to be sentenced to prison for a botched surgery. He was convicted of injury to an elderly person in the 2012 surgery on Mary Efurd that put her in a wheelchair.

    Duntsch was once an upcoming neurosurgeon. He made his mark, just not the one that he expected.

    “This defendant single-handedly ruined their lives, and he gave each of them a life of pain,” prosecutor Michelle Shughart told jurors in closing statements.

    For weeks, jurors heard the accounts of patients who had been maimed or paralyzed in horrifically bungled surgeries. Kellie Martin and Floella Brown died. They also heard from doctors, nurses and other medical professionals who were shocked by what they saw Duntsch do during and after those surgeries.

    “So why didn’t he stop?” Shughart said. “Because of greed. Because he owed people a lot of money. He wanted to live the high life and a neurosurgeon makes big bucks. Why didn’t he stop? Because he had no conscious. He doesn’t care what he has left in his wake.”

    Jurors heard from Duntsch’s dad, mother, brother and a family friend who sought to appeal to the sympathies of the jury...

    They described him as the bright, precocious little boy who had taken care of a sick bird and loved dogs. They showed photos of him as a baby, as a toddler, and as a boy getting a soccer ball for Christmas. They talked about how he doted on his two little boys.

    His father, Don Duntsch, spoke with pride about how his son had once been one of the top authorities on stem cells and had done ground-breaking cancer research.

    He said his son called him upset after several of the botched surgeries. He has no doubt that his son cared about his patients.
    In the end, he blamed pride for his son’s downfall.

    “I think what happened is that as things began to fall apart, the only thing he knew was to try harder,” Don Duntsch said.

    His younger brother, Nathan, said he had spoken to Duntsch’s friend and former employee, Jerry Summers, who was left a quadriplegic after one of those botched surgeries. He said that Summers had broken down in to “uncontrolled crying and said, ‘I know your brother would never do this to me on purpose.’”...

    Melinda Lehmann, his defense attorney, said Duntsch was a scapegoat for a medical establishment that just kept hiring him and putting him in operating rooms.

    “Is it right for him go to away, to be thrown away when all of them profited?” she said of the hospitals that hired him. “They all have blood on their hands.”

    The jury came back with their verdict in about an hour.

    For Mary Efurd, it was sweet justice for the man who ruined her life.

    “This is what I wanted,” she said. “This what I’ve waited for four and half years.”