DALLAS (CN) – Baylor Health Care System sent patients to a drunken, drug-using neurological surgeon who killed and maimed several patients, in search of “enormous profits,” a patient claims in Federal Court.
Kenneth Fennell, 68, of Oak Point, Texas, sued the Dallas-based hospital operator and Baylor Regional Medical Center at Plano on Monday.
He claims Dr. Christopher Duntsch performed an “ill-conceived” surgery on him in November 2011. Duntsch is not a party to this lawsuit. The Texas Medical Board suspended his license in June 2013.
Fennell claims he received “services rendered … for a procedure performed on the wrong body part.”
He says that Duntsch’s fellow doctors described him as “dangerous” and “the worst surgeon they had ever seen,” that his surgeries resulted in high blood loss, hardware malpositioning and hardware misuse.
“Duntsch’s motivation for performing unnecessary and ill-conceived surgeries was in part due to pressure and expectation from the Baylor defendants that he bring in revenue to pay them back for the monies they had advanced him and to turn enormous profits for them,” the 19-page complaint states.
Fennell claims in the lawsuit that during Duntsch’s residency in Tennessee, he disappeared for three days when he was confronted about using cocaine the night before performing surgery.
Nonetheless, Baylor Health recruited Duntsch in a joint venture with the Minimally Invasive Spine Institute of Dallas, paid him $50,000 in guaranteed income per month for one year and advanced Duntsch $600,000, Fennell claims.
“During the time Duntsch was affiliated with Baylor Plano, he used and abused alcohol, illicit and prescription drugs,” the complaint states. “His pattern was to do cocaine for two to four days at a time. He would work and do cocaine. Following two to four days of cocaine use, he would ‘crash’ for a day or two. Efforts to contact him during periods of time when he would ‘crash’ were not fruitful. Nevertheless, Baylor Plano did not drug test Dr. Duntsch, did not investigate his unusual behavior, and did not heed the warnings it had received about Dr. Duntsch.”
The complaint describes Duntsch as a drug-taking machine.
“He would drink vodka beginning in the morning,” the complaint states. “He would start by mixing it with juices but would convert to clear mixes throughout the day. In addition, he illegally obtained prescription drugs, such as Lortab, Xanax, and Oxycontin, for his own use. He was known to use alcohol while working as a neurosurgeon. Moreover, alcohol, drugs, and drug paraphernalia were found in his office at Baylor Plano.”
Despite Duntsch’s erratic and disorganized behavior, Baylor Health continued to promote his services and encouraged other doctors in the Baylor system to refer patients to him, Fennell claims.
“In addition, the Baylor defendants continued to pay for a marketing professional to promote Dr. Duntsch and his neurosurgery practice,” the complaint states. “Duntsch was under pressure to schedule surgeries so that Baylor Plano could get back the money it advanced him. During this period of time, Duntsch was known to be in the hospital administrator’s office daily at times and multiple times weekly at others. His unusual and erratic behavior began to wear on the hospital administration at Baylor Plano.”
Fennell cites several other surgeries Duntsch performed on other patients. In one case in December 2011, Duntsch was “doing things that were so unusual and alarming” that another surgeon present “grabbed Duntsch’s hands” and instructed him to stop, according to the complaint.
“This surgeon told Duntsch that he was dangerous and he would never operate with Duntsch again,” the complaint states. “This altercation was witnessed by Baylor Plano’s [operating room] staff.”
In February 2012, Fennell says, Duntsch operated on Jerry Summers – a lifelong friend and roommate of Duntsch’s – a resulting in permanent quadriplegia.
“Doctors and other healthcare providers involved in the care of Jerry Summers were shocked because this is an unheard of outcome from an anterior cervical fusion,” the complaint states. “Summers reported to the ICU nursing staff that he had witnessed Duntsch using drugs the night before the surgery and that this was a common occurrence for Duntsch to use drugs before doing surgery.”
Fennell claims that after a March 2012 surgery that resulted in massive blood, the defendants asked Duntsch to resign.
“Contrary to their legal, ethical, and moral duty to report Dr. Duntsch to the National Practitioner Data Bank, Baylor Plano did not do so,” the complaint states. “Subsequently, Dr. Duntsch hired a lawyer who negotiated a letter of reference from Baylor Plano.”
Fennell claims the defendants sent a letter of recommendation to Dallas Medical Center that failed to state any adverse issues with the surgeon, and that this resulted in Duntsch performing several more operations that “killed or seriously maimed” more patients.
In suspending Duntsch’s medical license, the Texas Medical Board cited his “lack of competence, impaired status and failure to adequately care for his patents” as a “continuing threat” to public welfare.
“Within a span of 16 months, two of Dr. Duntsch’s patients died following procedures and two others were severely injured,” the board said in a statement at the time. “The patients suffered excessive blood loss and one was left paralyzed from the neck down. Another patient sustained a large tear to the esophagus. Additionally, Dr. Duntsch failed to identify a sponge left in a patient despite the sponge being evident in an early postoperative chest x-ray.
“The Board also found Dr. Duntsch, 42, is unable to practice medicine with reasonable skill and safety due to impairment from drugs or alcohol. His privileges at University General Hospital Dallas were suspended June 17, 2013.”
Baylor Health declined to comment on the lawsuit Monday afternoon.
Duntsch was the subject of a long story in the Texas Observer, headlined: “ Anatomy of a Tragedy .”
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