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The Operations Were Hideously Botched. But He Kept at Them

ProPublica looks at how Christopher Duntsch managed to operate on patients for 2 years
By Kate Seamons,  Newser Staff
Posted Oct 2, 2018 1:14 PM CDT
Updated Oct 7, 2018 3:00 PM CDT
"One screw was jabbed directly into her spinal canal. That same screw had also skewered the nerves that control one leg and the bladder. ... One of Efurd’s nerve roots — the bundle of nerves coming out...   (Getty Images)
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(Newser) – There is a single doctor in America who has been sentenced to life in prison in connection with the harm he has done to patients during surgery, reports Laura Beil. In a piece for ProPublica, she unpacks just how neurosurgeon Christopher Duntsch managed to keep operating for as long as he did. The upshot is that the safeguards in place to prevent that very thing can be circumvented. She found that 33 of the 37 patients he operated on over the course of about two years in Dallas had "almost unheard-of complications"; two died. But neurosurgeons bring in millions for hospitals, and that golden-goose quality allowed Duntsch to secure operating privileges at a number of facilities in the area (one gave him a $600,000 advance). When problems emerged, most decided to avoid the legal headache of firing him and permitted him to resign.

Two of them didn't submit his name to a federal Health and Human Services database that can alert would-be employers to problem doctors. The state medical board wasn't notified until six months' worth of botched surgeries had occurred; an investigation took a year, and Duntsch practiced during that time. His final patient to undergo surgery, in 2013, was Jeff Glidewell, and Beil offers this description of the surgery: "Duntsch mistook part of his neck muscle for a tumor and abandoned the operation midway through—after cutting into Glidewell’s vocal cords, puncturing an artery, slicing a hole in his esophagus, stuffing a sponge into the wound and then sewing Glidewell up, sponge and all." He survived, but with serious consequences. It's far from the only ghastly surgery she describes—and prosecutors finally took notice. Read the full story here. (Read more Longform stories.)

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