When one puts his or her life in the hands of a trained doctor or surgeon, it is expected that things will go smoothly. These doctors typically have handled numerous similar procedures, so the patient can rest assured that this is just another day for the medical personnel. Right? Christopher Duntsch, a surgeon in Dallas County, Texas, was responsible for Mary Efurd’s spinal fusion in 2012. After the surgery, the 74 year old patient began complaining of extreme pain and an inability to be mobile. She claimed she had woken up from her surgery in crippling pain, unable to stand, and she couldn’t figure out what could have possibly happened to make her feel worse than she had prior to the procedure. The surgery to fuse two of the woman’s vertebrae was considered simple and routine by medical standards, and her surgeon had years of experience.
A few days later, Efurd underwent surgery again in an attempt to fix the issue, and upon re-examination by Dr. Robert Henderson, it was determined that Duntsch left hardware inside her soft tissue, harming one of Efurd’s nerve roots. Another root had a screw in it, and numerous screw holes were in incorrect areas of the woman’s spine. The findings shocked Henderson, and Efurd decided to take legal action.
Duntsch’s colleagues described the doctor as a “confident man, perhaps too confident”. Evidently, the surgeon had made statements such as, “Everybody’s doing it wrong. I’m the only clean minimally invasive guy in the whole state.” This was quickly determined to be untrue when one of the doctor’s colleagues, surgeon Mark Hoyle, worked alongside him. Hoyle said that the surgery had gone so terribly, and was so bloody, it looked as if Duntsch was “fishing in a pond at night, saying he was working by feel, not sight.” The image is a gut-wrenching one. To think that a surgeon had induced such a mess is beyond troublesome.
Prosecutors referred to Duntsch and his hands as “deadly weapons”, claiming the doctor had “intentionally, knowingly and recklessly” performed similar botched surgeries on at least 15 other patients who had the misfortune of going under his knife at various hospitals throughout Dallas and Collin counties.
Jurors in Efurd’s case were out only four hours before convicting Duntsch of a felony charge for hurting an elderly person, along with five counts of aggravated assault. However, prosecutors decided after the fact to focus only on Efurd’s case, while utilizing evidence of others in which the doctor caused paralysis, strokes and even death. Duntsch’s attorneys, of course, objected to testimony about the others during the trial. They called an expert witness, Dr. Carlos Bagley, Director of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center’s neurological surgery spine program, who agreed that the doctor’s actions were inexcusable, but argued that the problem wasn’t with the doctor himself, but rather a system in which bad outcomes were not reported in a timely manner. Bagley stated, “This was a complete and utter failure of the entire system of checks and balances for patient safety.”