Is Dr Death Based on a true story?
“Dr. Death” is inspired by the terrifying true story of Dr. Christopher Duntsch, a young and charismatic physician in the Texas medical community. After building a flourishing neurosurgery practice, everything suddenly changes when patients entering Dr. NBC10 Boston‘Dr. Death': The True Crime Story Transitions From Podcast to the Small Screen
When does Dr Death start on peacock?
“Dr. Death” premieres on Peacock on Thursday, July 15. The series is a true-life crime drama program based on the podcast of the same name. The storyline is based on Dr. Christopher Duntsch (Joshua Jackson), a rising star in the Dallas medical community. pennlive.comHow to watch ‘Dr. Death’ on Peacock: Premiere date, cast, trailer
A grim new drama is making its way to TV screens this week, sure to lure in fans with its tale of a ruthless killer with a god complex against a backdrop of high-stakes surgeries, a group of suspicious medical professionals, and determined prosecutors trying like hell to stop him.
The eight-episode series is anticipated to be a thrilling watch. But perhaps more terrifying, the show depicts the chilling real-life story of Dallas-area neurosurgeon Christopher Duntsch, who stands accused of killing or maiming more than 30 patients in the 2010s.
The 50-year-old is currently serving a life sentence in a Texas prison after being convicted in 2017 of intentionally botching a surgery on an elderly woman, leaving her screaming in pain when she awoke. She is now wheelchair-bound.
“He was acting as a serial killer,” Dallas County Assistant District Attorney Michelle Shughart said about Duntsch in 2017.
While only convicted on one offense, Texas prosecutors presented heaps of evidence of Duntsch intentionally leaving behind a sickening trail of devastated lives from his botched surgeries, with two women dead, patients left nearly unable to talk due to their vocal cords being cut, and others who walked into the hospital on their own but left as paraplegics.
Kenneth Fennell, 78, who was Duntsch’s first patient at Baylor Medical Center at Plano after the surgeon transferred from the Memphis area in 2011, suffers lasting pain in his legs and can only walk a short distance before having to rest after going under Duntsch’s knife to cure his back pain in November 2011.
Fennell told The Daily Beast that he spoke at length with the makers of the NBC show to help them shape their script, explaining that he’s willing to participate in any project about Duntsch to help raise awareness about the murkiness of hospitals’ system of reporting malpractice and wrongdoing by doctors.
He also has another reason for participating. “Hopefully it helps keep him in jail,” he said.
Without structural change and transparency, Fennell believes there are other murderous surgeons and medical professionals operating unchecked on their none-the-wiser patients, bouncing hospital to hospital, leaving countless bodies in their wake.
“You bet,” he said. “I guarantee there’s been [Duntsches] in the past and I guarantee there are [Duntsches] right now.”
Somewhat shockingly, prior to Duntsch’s conviction in 2017, there had never been a doctor who was successfully convicted of aggravated assault as a result of their work in the operating room. His case was highly publicized in Dallas, as it was rare enough that a doctor—whose sole job is to heal patients—would deliberately hurt them. It was quite another to have them live and work in your city.
Fennell first met the braggadocious Duntsch back in 2011, needing surgery for his constant back pain. Duntsch came highly recommended and wooed Fennell and his wife with boasts that he’d soon be running Baylor Medical Center’s entire neurosurgery department.
Duntsch told Fennell the surgery was a success, but months went by and Fennell was still experiencing severe pain in his back, which led him to seek out Duntsch again.
By January 2013, however, Duntsch was no longer working at Baylor Medical Center. Fennell thought it strange, but when he contacted his insurance company to see if there was any specific reason why Duntsch had left, Fennell was told the surgeon was still in good standing. So, Fennell trusted Duntsch to perform the second surgery, not knowing that Baylor Medical Center had revoked his privileges with the hospital.
When he awoke from his surgery, Fennell was paralyzed from the waist down. He later learned that Duntsch had operated on the wrong part of his back in the first surgery, and in the second, removed part of his femoral nerve. It took months of rehab for Fennell to be able to barely walk again with the assistance of a cane.
And it would be months before they discovered that in the span of those 14 months, Duntsch had performed several botched surgeries, and his procedures on Floella Brown and Kellie Martin had led to their deaths—which led to his dismissal from Baylor Medical Center and several other hospitals, according to Texas prosecutors.
One of Duntsch’s patients was found to have a surgical sponge left behind in his neck, leading to a severe infection. A surgeon told D Magazine that the mistakes that somehow continually occurred in Duntsch’s operating room were “never events.”
“They shouldn’t ever happen in someone’s entire career,” they said. “And yet they occurred in Duntsch’s operating rooms over a period of just two years.”
Fennell is adamant that if the hospital had informed him or there was some kind of report made to insurance companies as to why Duntsch had his privileges revoked, there was no way he’d have let the surgeon perform his second operation.
Instead, Duntsch was allowed to hop around to five different practices in the Dallas area—allegedly killing two out of 38 patients and injuring 33 others—in the span of two years.
“People in the same profession are trying to police their profession, trying to protect themselves and protect their own,” Fennell said. “Part of what it took here, with the medical board in Texas, were doctors calling in personally, going down and seeing the board members trying to get [Duntsch] stopped. It took them two years to do that.”
Fennell’s shocking case is one of several that Duntsch was allowed to wriggle out of. The surgeon felt he could get away with anything, confessing as much in a chilling email to his assistant-turned-lover Kimberly Morgan in December 2011—a month after operating on Fennell.
“Anyone close to me thinks that I likely am something between god, Einstein, and the antichrist,” Duntsch wrote. “Because how can I do anything I want and cross every discipline boundary like its [sic] a playground and never ever lose.”
“I am ready to leave the love and kindness and goodness and patience that I mix with everything else that I am and become a cold blooded killer,” he added.
Various victims and their families have spoken out over the years about Duntsch, including the husband of schoolteacher Kellie Martin, who died in 2012 at the age of 54 following surgery on her back.
“Kellie even asked Dr. Duntsch, ‘Have you ever had any bad outcomes or deaths on your surgeries,’ and he said, ‘No, knock on wood,’” Don Martin recalled at Duntsch’s trial.
One of the people Duntsch maimed was his close friend Jerry Summers, whom he performed a cervical fusion surgery on in 2011. Summers was left a quadriplegic, having to deal with various infections over the years caused by complications from his condition. Summers ultimately died from an infection in February at the age of 50.
Summers’ family and his former lawyer did not return requests for comment when contacted by The Daily Beast. Summers is included in the Dr. Death series, his character played by Dominic Burgess.
After two years of surgeons and other medical professionals who had worked with Duntsch personally investigating Duntsch and campaigning for him to lose his medical license, the Texas Medical Board finally revoked his license in December 2013.
It would take another two years for Duntsch to be charged with five counts of aggravated assault, although he was only convicted on one charge.
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Such was the case with Dirty John, USA’s scripted spin on the Wondery podcast about a mild-mannered interior design mogul and her hasty, horrific relationship with a malignant romance scammer. Dirty John was, at its very best, a competent and respectful staging of a story that had become its best self long before Connie Britton and Eric Bana stepped into the lead roles. That history is what makes Dr. Death, the second scripted series born of a Wondery podcast, a pleasant surprise wrapped in a decidedly unpleasant story. In fact, this adaptation manages to improve on its source material, perhaps because the story of Dr. Christopher Duntsch is so monstrous, it must be seen to be believed.
Patrick Macmanus; based on the Wondery podcast
Joshua Jackson, Alec Baldwin, Christian Slater, AnnaSophia Robb, Kelsey Grammer
Hour-long medical drama; complete series watched for review
Despite the mangled bodies left in his wake, Duntsch packs his schedule with surgeries, flitting to a new hospital each time his operating privileges are quietly revoked at another. The only thing more terrifying than Duntsch’s ruinous persistence is how easily he escapes scrutiny in a professional culture that emphasizes hospital politics and offers boundless deference to split-second judgment calls.
That latitude evaporates when Robert Henderson (Alec Baldwin), a fellow neurosurgeon, is called in to repair one of Duntsch’s procedures and finds evidence of work so shoddy, he initially concludes Duntsch is an unlearned imposter. The truth is far thornier than that once Henderson starts investigating Duntsch’s provenance with help from Randall Kirby (Christian Slater), a vascular surgeon with the misfortune of witnessing Duntsch’s overconfident butchery. Henderson and Kirby are only armed with righteous indignation, but they’re the only ones willing to risk their careers to end Duntsch’s.
If that description sounds more like a show about renegade detectives rather than medical specialists, that’s because showrunner Patrick Macmanus foregrounds Henderson and Kirby’s odd-couple dynamic in the early episodes. Henderson is a humble institutionalist, eager to stop Duntsch but always aware of the feathers he might ruffle in doing so. That leaves Kirby to play the bad cop, delivering his expert opinions in vulgar plainspeak and advocating for the most ostentatious course of action. As much fun as it is watching Baldwin and Slater play off each other, the show is at its most redundant when it feels like a procedural called Dallas Malpractice: Criminal Intent.
But in spite of its observant lens and Jackson’s able performance, Dr. Death comes just shy of a truly cutting character study. The primary flaw in the series is the same one that plagues the podcast: Duntsch only gets more opaque the more he’s illuminated. It remains unclear which of Duntsch’s maladjustments most contributed to his bad medicine. Could he have avoided his deadly outcomes had he gotten his raging drug addiction under control? Did his actions constitute actual malice, or is his a case of Dunning-Kruger effect taken to an especially macabre conclusion?
Those questions still linger years after the conclusion of Duntsch’s case, which is why Dr. Death is at its most vital when it enters the courtroom phase. The responsibility of teasing out Duntsch’s actual motives falls to Michelle Shughart (AnnaSophia Robb), a young and plucky prosecutor intent on punishing him, despite the rarity of criminally charging physicians for on-the-job tragedies. The most Shughart can do is establish that, to the permanently injured patients, the distinction between evil and incompetence is technical at best.
The real job of convicting Duntsch falls to the all-female directorial team (Maggie Kiley, Jennifer Morrison, and So Yong Kim) and their skillful staging of each botched procedure. There’s unbearable suspense to the surgery sequences, even as the audience can predict the outcomes, and it’s impossible not to wince as Duntsch digs and yanks at his patients’ most sensitive anatomy. Most of the horror is implied through meticulous sound design and reaction shots from the traumatized bystanders. Even with relatively little actual viscera, the tragedy of Duntsch’s rampage stands among the year’s most visceral TV experiences.
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Duntsch, better known today as "Dr. Death," moved to Dallas in 2010 with impressive qualifications. He had 15 years of medical training under his belt, his CV reportedly spanned 12 single-spaced pages and he exuded confidence — all of which landed him a job performing minimally invasive spinal surgeries.
By 2013, he had bounced around between hospitals, tarnished his reputation and had his medical license revoked.
Two patients died from his actions and many more suffered permanent injuries, including his best friend, who left Duntsch's operating room paralyzed.
A new four-part docuseries from Peacock premiering July 29, called Dr. Death: The Undoctored Story, peers inside the torturous crimes of Duntsch, featuring chilling stories from victims and coworkers who saw the killer surgeon in action — and were forever harmed as a result. (An exclusive trailer is shown below.)
The episodes will include interviews from Duntsch's ex-girlfriend, who mothered his two children; his best friend, who he paralyzed during an operation; several of Duntsch's former colleagues, including a surgeon who physically tried to stop him during a surgery gone awry; and other victims and lawyers close to the case.
Dr. Death: The Undoctored Story starts streaming on Peacock Thursday, July 29.
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The series, a lightly fictionalized version of the podcast, stars Joshua Jackson as the slick and overconfident Duntsch. Alec Baldwin and Christian Slater join the cast as two doctors who try to stop Duntsch from causing further harm. Their efforts to stop him, as documented both in the podcast and show, take a long time, as Duntsch moves between hospitals and continues injuring patients.
How does a doctor get away with something like this? Of the 37 patients Duntsch operated on in Dallas over about two years, 33 were hurt or harmed in the process. Some people woke up paralyzed; others emerged from anesthesia to permanent pain from nerve damage. Two patients died, one from significant blood loss after the operation and the other from a stroke caused by a cut vertebral artery. One patient, a childhood friend of Duntsch’s, went in for a spinal operation with someone he trusted and woke up a quadriplegic after the doctor damaged his vertebral artery. Such significant injuries should have been “never events”—something that should never occur in an operating room, a surgeon told D Magazine, which covers the Dallas-Fort Worth area, in a 2016 piece that inspired the eventual Dr. Death podcast.
The question of how Duntsch was able to operate with impunity for so long—when surrounded by many people who tried to raise the alarm and failed—drives Dr. Death, which jumps across time in each episode to show what the doctor was like as a young man, friend and medical student, and then later as a surgeon, a partner and a father. One conversation in Peacock’s first episode of Dr. Death sums up the confusion many felt at watching Duntsch work: “It was like he knew what he was supposed to do … and he did the exact opposite.”
Here’s what to know about Duntsch, what he did and how he was eventually stopped.
Duntsch took careful steps to put across the image of a hardworking, competent and caring person and doctor. The son of a physical therapist and teacher, he was known even before pursuing his medical aspirations as a person who didn’t give up—even when letting go would have been the right choice. Determined to play football for a Division I college team, Duntsch dedicated himself to training while in high school. While he did make it on to a couple of college teams—one in Mississippi and one in Colorado—former teammates said he had trouble keeping up in practice but would plead with coaches to let him keep trying. “I gathered very quickly that everything that he had accomplished in sports had come with the sweat equity,” one old teammate told ProPublica in 2018. “When people said, ‘You weren’t going to be good enough,’ he outworked that and he made it happen.”
This attitude and outlook stuck with Duntsch as he set out to achieve something beyond football and landed on surgery. He decided he’d be a neurosurgeon and was not going to let anything, including lack of skill or training, stop him in his quest. And at first, Duntsch appeared to have what it took: He enrolled in an M.D./Ph.D program at the University of Tennessee at Memphis College of Medicine and put in dozens of hours in cancer and stem cell research. He was even part of a group that founded the biopharmaceutical company Discgenics—which focuses on developing regenerative cell-based therapies to help with pain—and brought on two of his mentors in surgery as investors. (He was later let go from the company over money issues).
Things seemed to be moving along smoothly. But depositions from Duntsch’s peers who knew him around that time period, between 2006 and 2008, point to cracks in the facade. One woman remembered Duntsch taking LSD and cocaine throughout one night, before leaving the next morning for his hospital shift. “After you’ve spent a night using cocaine, most people become paranoid and want to stay in the house,” the woman said in the deposition, according to D Magazine. “They don’t want to go participate in any extraneous activities, and he was totally fine going to work.”
Duntsch’s substance abuse was brought to the attention of the University of Tennessee following an anonymous complaint that he was doing drugs before work. The podcast series and ProPublica report that Duntsch was ordered by the university to take a drug test, but managed to avoid it. He was then sent to a program for impaired physicians and still allowed to complete his surgical training—though how thorough the training was is unclear. Only years later would the Dallas district attorney’s office discover through a search of hospital records that although a typical neurosurgery resident completes about 1,000 operations during their training, Duntsch had actually done fewer than 100.
On paper, Duntsch was a star pick for any hospital system once he completed his residency, thanks to years of research and study of the use of stem cells and several strong recommendations from his prior supervisors. Following training, Duntsch settled in the Dallas area in 2011, joining the Minimally Invasive Spine Institute in Plano as a practicing physician. This position also granted him operating privileges at Baylor Regional Medical Center (Baylor-Plano). There, other surgeons quickly realized their new colleague was not just arrogant about his abilities but an actual danger to his patients as the casualties began adding up. A former coworker, Dr. Randall Kirby (played by Christian Slater in the Peacock series), said he watched Duntsch botch a relatively simple procedure by refusing to use a scalpel to remove a disk, instead using a different instrument that ended up causing more damage. The patient Duntsch operated on continues to walk with a cane and lives with chronic pain.
And that was just one case from Baylor-Plano. Other patients who went to Duntsch had similar experiences: entering the operating room with the expectation of relieving a great burden and waking up to an even worse reality.
Later, following another accusation that he was abusing drugs before doing surgeries, Duntsch was relegated to mostly minor surgical procedures at the hospital. The first operation he conducted in this capacity was to fix a woman’s compressed nerve—during the surgery, he cut an important vessel in the woman’s spinal cord and she bled to death. And what happened after shows how Duntsch was able to continue working as a surgeon in Texas, despite the trail of broken trust, chronic pain and death he left behind.
While Baylor-Plano conducted an investigation of Duntsch and his cases, and found that he would need to be let go, Duntsch was not technically fired from the hospital. ProPublica reports that Duntsch resigned voluntarily in April 2012. Crucially, as is recounted in careful detail in the podcast, in part because of the voluntary exit, Baylor-Plano was not required to report Duntsch’s actions to the National Practitioner Data Bank, a resource medical professionals and hospital administrators use to track which doctors have been fired, suspended, had their licenses revoked or have had to make malpractice payments. Duntsch was not reported to either the data bank or the Texas Medical Board, preventing him from being tracked as he continued his career elsewhere in the state.
Duntsch moved on fairly quickly, to the Dallas Medical Center, where officials allowed him to begin operating while they conducted his reference checks—which ended in disaster. In July, he performed an operation on a woman who lost a tremendous amount of blood and lost consciousness upon waking up after surgery. She was transferred to another hospital and died. At the same time, Duntsch was operating on another woman, and the staff in the room said they were unsure whether he “was putting hardware … in the right places and noticed he kept drilling and removing screws.” That woman woke up in pain, unable to move.
The Texas Medical Board began receiving official reports about Duntsch following the botched procedures at Dallas Medical Center, as multiple doctors began sending in complaints. Kirby, along with Dr. Robert Henderson (played in the series by Alec Baldwin), a spine surgeon who had been called in to fix Duntsch’s mistakes, were among the physicians who reported and attempted to stop him. For months, they stopped getting reports about messed up operations and thought they’d found success. But at the end of 2012, Kirby was called to help yet another patient who’d had her vocal cords and an artery cut during a neck surgery—a surgery he discovered had been done by Duntsch at another clinic.
In 2013, things came to a tragic head. Despite being known in Texas as a doctor to avoid (at least among professional peers), and despite a report to the data bank and an investigation into his cases by the state medical board, Duntsch continued to be hired. The last hospital to employ Duntsch was the now-shuttered University General, where he botched another surgery after he mistook a patient’s neck muscle for a tumor. Kirby, who called the operation “an attempted murder,” and Henderson, both annoyed by the slow pace of the state’s investigation, ramped up their efforts to strip Duntsch of his practicing rights. In June 2013, Duntsch’s medical license was suspended and fully revoked later that December.
After this, life for Duntsch fell apart. As is shown in the series, he drank too much and shoplifted hundreds of dollars worth of items, among other erratic behaviors. In the meantime, prosecutors were working with Kirby and Henderson to find a way to indict Duntsch—a challenge, considering Texas had never previously handled such a case. Eventually, they indicted Duntsch on five counts of aggravated assault and one count of causing harm to an elderly person.
To establish that Duntsch’s disastrous work had been a part of a longtime pattern, prosecutors brought several of his former patients on the stand to testify about their experiences. “You had people in walkers. You had people on crutches. You had people that could barely move. You had people that had lost loved ones,” one of Duntsch’s defense attorneys told ProPublica. But some of the most important testimony came from Kimberly Morgan, Duntsch’s former assistant and ex-girlfriend, who shared parts of a 2011 email from Duntsch that appeared to lay out his true aims: “Unfortunately, you cannot understand that I am building an empire and I am so far outside the box that the Earth is small and the sun is bright. I am ready to leave the love and kindness and goodness and patience that I mix with everything else that I am and become a cold blooded killer.” Duntsch was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison.
Coverage of Duntsch’s case, the podcast series and the now-streaming Peacock series all make sure to underscore that his story is part of a major systemic failure—a common theme in true crime stories. In this case, Duntsch remained a popular hire in part because neurosurgeons bring more revenue to the hospitals they work for than nearly any other medical specialty, and officials are unlikely to second-guess a candidate with stellar credentials and recommendations. Coupled with the slow pace of the investigation the Texas Medical Board conducted, Duntsch was basically allowed to wreak havoc wherever he went until he was brought to a final stop.
Write to Mahita Gajanan at email@example.com.