“I don’t want to scare people, but there could be a Dr. Death operating right now in a hospital near you and you the patient would have no way of knowing.” – Kay Van Wey
When Kay Van Wey didn’t make the cheer squad at her Lawton, Oklahoma high school in the mid-1970’s, she was initially crushed. But that rejection led Van Wey to try for a spot on the school debate team, which she eventually nabbed. She also became the first female student body president of her school.
With these positions, the Lawton native quickly realized she had a talent and love for public advocacy issues, the rule of law and using those tools to help ordinary people. She took her new found calling to the University of Oklahoma, graduating with a degree in political science in 1980, and then to Oklahoma City University School of Law where she graduated with a law degree in 1983.
Over four decades later, Van Wey has built a resume marking her as one of America’s preeminent personal trial lawyers and patient safety advocates. She is the founder and owner of Van Wey & Williams Trial Law Firm in Dallas. She has been named a Texas Super Lawyer for 19 consecutive years, a D-Best Lawyer by D Magazine, and a Texas Trial Legend by the Dallas Bar Association. She has also been named to the Million Dollar and Multi-Million Dollar Advocates Forum for her legal work in representing clients to help them get the results they deserve.
”After many years in this field, I have come to realize that being willing to fail at something is an important part of success,” Van Wey said recently when asked about the reason for her many successes. “If you always take the safe path, you aren’t going to be able to take the risks necessary to swing for the fences.”
Van Wey certainly hit the proverbial home run in a case she took on seven years ago that has now led her to national prominence.
In 2014 Van Wey, along with several other attorneys, successfully represented 14 plaintiffs in the infamous ‘Dr. Death’ case. ‘Dr. Death’ is the moniker given to Dr. Christopher Duntsch, who worked as a prominent neurosurgeon at three hospitals in Dallas, Texas between 2011 and 2013. While there, he performed major operations on 37 people. 31 of Duntsch’s patients became seriously injured as a result of the botched surgeries, some with full paralysis, others with brain damage, and some with severe chronic pain. Two patients died.
Van Wey and her team were able to produce enough evidence in the medical malpractice lawsuits to attract the attention of the Dallas County District Attorney. This led to criminal charges filed against Duntsch, a conviction, and a life sentence handed down in 2018.
The horrifying and harrowing story of how Duntsch was able to get away with his unconscionable crimes, and how justice finally caught up with him, was the basis for a popular podcast series produced by Wondery Media that same year called ‘Dr. Death.’ Van Wey was interviewed extensively for the podcast and appeared in several episodes. There’s also a new 8-part fictionalized series called ‘Doctor Death,’ appearing on the Peacock Network, starring Alec Baldwin, Christian Slater and Joshua Jackson as Duntsch.
With the continuing interest in the Dr. Death saga, Van Wey has become a much sought after expert guest, appearing on shows such as American Greed, Dr. Oz, and Dr. Phil. Her appearances on these national shows, however, weren’t just because of her involvement in the medical malpractice suits she filed on behalf of her clients. Since that case, Van Wey has become an outspoken critic of the hiring practices of for-profit hospitals in Texas and nationwide. She says the system is set up to protect hospitals rather than patients, and makes it almost impossible for patients to know whether the doctor they are entrusting their very lives to has been properly vetted or had committed offenses in the past.
“If the system was designed to protect patients,” Van Wey said, “there wouldn’t have been a situation where a licensed surgeon repeatedly and knowingly injured or killed his patients without being properly reported and stopped. But that is exactly what happened.”
With the release of the ‘Dr. Death’ TV series, Van Wey is taking the opportunity to alert the public about the issue of patient safety and how regulators are not necessarily looking out for their best interests. The problem, she says, requires urgent attention.
“This isn’t about entertainment,” Van Wey said. “I sincerely hope the series will bring attention to the serious problem we have in America with patient safety. You see, the deep problems we have with oversight of physicians did not begin or end with Christopher Duntsch. People who watch the show and think it could never happen to them are wrong. I don’t want to scare people, but there could be a Dr. Death operating right now in a hospital near you and you the patient would have no way of knowing.
“I have always said and believed, most doctors are good doctors, and good people. But the system for how we identify, report, and stop bad doctors is failing patients. The tragedy of the Christopher Duntsch story is that so many patients were harmed before he could be stopped. This is just incomprehensible and unacceptable.”
After nearly four decades of advocating for ordinary people, Van Wey is as motivated as ever to jump into the fire on behalf of those who have been wronged, and to see that justice is served.
“It’s about giving a darn about people and being the one to raise your hand and say ‘put me in coach’ because you can’t bear the thought of sitting on the sidelines when people so desperately need help.”