My sister loves murder podcasts. Last weekend she flew to Vancouver just to see a live taping of a “My Favourite Murder” episode. She was so overwhelmed to be in the presence of her “moms” that I believe her exact tweet was: “I will be breathing in the same air and silent farts as @KarenKilgariff tonight and I’m rly quite thrilled #MyFavoriteMurder”. Being an avid podcast consumer myself, I have dipped a foot into the genre to see if I could be as sucked in as she has been. But alas, unless there was a conspiratorial political slant to the killing and/or its coverup (I’m looking at YOU 80’s Bill Clinton!), my interest in the stories never rose to the level of aggressively recommending them to anyone who would listen.
That was the state of things up until last week, while I was cleaning my room and passively listening to the NPR One app as it auto-played randomly selected podcasts. One new episode started up by painting a hypothetical “imagine this” scenario: you’re dealing with wicked back pain and no one can help you. You finally find a surgeon who’s convinced that he can fix it. All of his reviews are glowing, and his accolades are two pages long, so…you go in for surgery. When you wake up, the pain is even more excruciating. You can tell that something’s not right—and it’s not. You will never walk again. And you don’t know it yet, but you are one of the lucky ones.
At this point I grab my phone to check what show this is because it sounds like a corny, spooky fiction cooked up for the Halloween season, and I don’t “do” fiction. I could not have been more wrong or more ready to binge-listen to a podcast about people dying in a way that fuels nightmares. So here I am, pitching to as many people as possible (thanks Canons!) my recommendation that you all have a listen to Wondery Media’s podcast “Dr. Death”.
The story in a nutshell is this: Dr. Chris Duntsch was a spinal neurosurgeon with an impressive resume, stellar recommendations, and a work ethic that others looked up to. After graduating from the University of Tennessee, Duntsch began a lucrative practice in Texas where he operated on multiple patients between 2011 and 2013. Despite claiming that he was the best spinal surgeon in the state of Texas, his patient record painted a different, much darker story. Over the course of his short-lived surgical career he managed to kill two patients and wound or maim 31 others. Many went in for elective or low-risk routine procedures and came out as paraplegics or quadriplegics.
How badly botched did these surgeries have to be to get such disastrous results? The podcast lists the errors in stomach-churning detail: placing (and losing!) bone screws in muscle, whittling away excessive bone being to the point of (essentially) decapitation, puncturing of the vocal cords leaving patients unable to speak, sewing incisions back up with infectious sponges left inside…and that’s just a few. Despite how obviously terrible his workmanship was (other doctors would routinely be called in to “clean up the mess” with one assisting physician going so far as to wrestle the instruments away from him mid-operation), Dr. Duntsch maintained that the complications were routine and that he executed perfect surgical skill and decision-making with each situation.
After the podcast grips you with these terrifying vignettes of operations gone inexplicably wrong at the hands of an unrepentant and unconcerned doctor, it turns its attention to examining Dr. Duntsch himself. What’s his story? How did this guy come to be such an oblivious monster? Or worse yet, is he doing this on purpose? There’s fascinating email exchanges and interviews with former friends, patients, colleagues, and lovers who offer varying theories as to what could have been motivating him.
But the meat of the story is really the effort that it took to stop him and why, for so long, he wasn’t stopped. The show’s host Laura Biel made efforts to get every hospital or surgical centre that employed him on the record with an explanation of why there was never any formal investigations or consequences for Dr. Duntsch’s malpractice. Almost more frightening than the story of Duntsch himself, is how bad the system failed in protecting us—the patients. A lot of it came down to (unsurprisingly) money, and fear of litigation. Neurosurgeons bring in a LOT of cash for hospitals, and no one wants to be on the receiving end of a lawsuit claiming that you ruined one of their professional reputations. Now I’ll pause here to recognize that yes, this is a US case and yes, the economic and legal reality of our healthcare system here in Canada is different in a number of ways. So why should we care beyond being entertained by the shock value? Could something like this really happen in our own backyard? The answer might spook you.
Grab Canons next month for Dr. Death Part II.