Peacock’s new crime drama Dr. Death dramatizes the true story of Christopher Duntsch, a former Dallas-based neurosurgeon who was sentenced to life in prison after a string of his patients were maimed, paralyzed, or died under his care. The series is based on the popular Wondery true crime podcast of the same name, which introduced Duntsch’s story on the national stage in 2018.
Duntsch earned his MD-PhD at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, which is also where he completed his neurosurgery residency and a spine fellowship program. During his time at the university, Duntsch reportedly ran two labs, raised millions in grant funding, and is listed as one of the inventors on a successful stem cell patent. However, Duntsch reportedly participated in fewer than 100 surgeries during his four-year residency, less than 10% of the typical number of surgeries a neurosurgery resident partakes in. Colleagues also called him arrogant and incompetent, though he received four- and five-star reviews on Healthgrades. A woman who knew Duntsch at the time claims that she witnessed him participating in heavy drug use during the later years of his residency, and Duntsch was reportedly sent to an impaired physician program after being accused of using cocaine and refusing to take a drug test.
In 2011, Duntsch moved to Plano, Texas to take a job with a spine institute, where he was fired after only performing one surgery. He then created his own practice, the Texas Neurosurgical Institute, and worked out of the Baylor Regional Medical Center at Plano, but that was also short-lived. Everywhere Duntsch went, people raised issues with his practices, but he managed to stay ahead of the allegations for several years. By mid-2012, Duntsch was performing surgeries at Dallas Medical Center and spent the next months gaining access to various medical centers in order to keep doing surgeries until the Texas Medical Board revoked his license in June 2013.
By the time Duntsch was formally charged with five counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and one count of injury to an elderly individual in 2015, prosecutors had reportedly identified nearly three dozen of his former patients who had been harmed during his operations. However, Duntsch was only tried over his treatment of elderly patient Mary Efurd. The older woman was operated on by Duntsch in 2012, and during the procedure lost a third of the blood in her body and full use of her legs, but still managed to survive. During the 2017 trial, jurors also heard testimony from the husband of Kellie Martin, a 54-year-old woman who died in 2012 after Duntsch performed back surgery on her.
As a result of the 2017 trial, Duntsch was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. He later appealed his case, but lost when his conviction was upheld 2-1 in the Fifth District Court of Appeals in 2018. He now remains in prison and is incarcerated at the at O. B. Ellis Unit of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice in Huntsville. Duntsch will not be eligible for parole until 2045, when he will be 74.