DALLAS (CN) – A Dallas County jury deliberated for one hour Monday before sentencing neurosurgeon Christopher Duntsch to life in state prison for maiming an elderly patient in a botched surgery.
The 12-member jury convicted Duntsch, of Plano, on Feb. 14 of injury to an elderly person – an exceptionally rare conviction of a medical doctor for substandard care. He was arrested in July 2015 and indicted on five counts of aggravated assault causing serious bodily injury.
Dallas County District Attorney Faith Johnson said after sentencing that her prosecutors “have done something historic” and that she is “so elated” with the life sentence. She said it was the first conviction of its kind in Dallas County.
“We hope [the victims] will just have a little joy to know that the person that did this thing to them will be serving a life sentence,” Johnson said.
On Friday, a surgeon who turned in Duntsch to state regulators for maiming several patients testified that the Texas Medical Board was unable to stop him.
Dr. Randall Kirby told jurors he sent information the Texas Medical Board about at least five of Duntsch’s botched surgeries. Kirby filed the complaint after he witnessed the spinal surgery of Jeff Glidewell in 2013. He testified that it looked like Duntsch “tried to decapitate” Glidewell.
“The Texas Medical Board is not set up to stop someone like Christopher Duntsch,” an exasperated Kirby testified. “It is inconceivable that someone like this would get out into practice.”
Kirby said Glidewell would have become quadriplegic had doctors not done another operation to stabilize his spine. They also had to repair his esophagus and remove a sponge left inside him.
“This has not happened in the United States of America, where you can do such a procedure and have such complications: leave a sponge, knock a hole in his esophagus, take out the recurrent laryngeal nerve, take out the vertebral artery and just leave him there without any attempt to transfer,” Kirby testified.
Jurors wept during the three-day sentencing phase as they heard emotional testimony from Duntsch’s patients. Photographs of several of Duntsch’s maimed and killed patients were displayed in the courtroom next to large sheets of paper listing each of their post-surgery ailments.
Patient Jacqueline Troy testified Friday that she nearly died after Duntsch operated on her in 2012 to relieve back pain from a car collision. She said her esophagus was pinned under a surgical plate implanted near her spine, her trachea was punctured and a feeding tube allowed food to get into her lungs.
Her husband, Tom Troy, testified that he feared she would die after the surgery.
“She did not know what was going on,” he said. “She did not know what was happening to her.”
Dr. Martin Lazar, a neurosurgeon testifying for the prosecution, said Troy’s surgery was a “disaster, an unmitigated disaster.” Lazar said he suspects the surgeries were performed by someone “who has no conscience, no empathy” and that Troy’s surgery was unnecessary to begin with.
“This has the appearance that the patients were treated like cannon fodder. They were just there to be operated on,” Lazar testified Friday.
Lazar said Duntsch apparently thought he had found a tumor in Glidewell’s neck, though it was really a muscle.
Lead prosecutor Michelle Shughart thanked the Dallas-area medical community for their assistance.
“We want to thank them so much for teaching us everything we needed to know on how to prosecute this case,” Shugart told reporters. “We did this for the victims, for what they have suffered, and we want everyone to know this will not be tolerated.”
Shughart said the list of victims “went on and on,” and that if had been only a few patients, it would be a civil malpractice matter instead criminal.
When asked if other parties are responsible for not having stopped Duntsch, Johnson said several civil cases filed by his victims are pending against four area hospitals.
In one case, against Baylor Health Care System, a patient claims fellow doctors called Duntsch “dangerous” and “the worst surgeon they had ever seen.” That patient claims Duntsch operated on his incorrect body part. Patients also have claimed that Duntsch operated after drinking alcohol and taking cocaine.
“The defendant was not the only one that was a part of this,” Johnson said. “He has taken the criminal blame.”