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Dr. Death is a haunting medical malpractice thriller

Podcast tells the disturbing true story of a murderous Colorado doctor.
Photo courtesy of Wondery

Podcast sheds light on dark side of medical field

Imagine living life with chronic back pain. Every day is defined by pain management and not being able to live life to its fullest. A doctor says that the problem can be solved with a simple spinal surgery and gives a referral to the top neurosurgeon in the region. After researching him online, there are only positive reviews. Videos of the surgeon’s patients explaining how he changed their lives and clips of the charismatic and charming surgeon. Surely, he is the best.

The operation date is scheduled and the surgeon has complete confidence. Nothing could possibly go wrong, right?

That was the thought process for patients operated on by Dr. Christopher Duntsch. Once Dr. Duntsch finished operating, he paralyzed 31 patients, nearly decapitated one, and killed two, rightly earning the nickname of Dr. Death after his conviction in 2012.

How did this happen? Newly released podcast series Dr. Death tries to find why Dr. Duntsch acted so savagely, and why nobody tried to stop him until it was too late.

Dr. Death is produced by Wondery, known for the investigative podcast series Dirty John, released in 2017. In Dr. Death, a timeline is set forth, following Dr. Duntsch through college, to medical school, progressing along to his medical career, and eventual arrest. Both series feel related to one another as both follow medical professionals gone rogue. While Dirty John focuses on family life, feeling more like a drama, Dr. Death is dramatically more haunting.

This noir-journalism series is expertly researched and narrated by Laura Beil. Beil has spent most of her career as a medical journalist, researching the inner workings of the medical field. Even she admits that the story of Dr. Duntsch is unlike any other.

Instead of relaying the horrifying acts committed by Dr. Duntsch, Beil wants to know how and why 31 were paralyzed and two were killed before an intervention occurred. Beil explains that typically doctors have their medical licenses removed after one or possibly two mishaps, and yet Dr. Duntsch was intentionally botching surgeries for years.

Or was it not intentional at all? As Beil digs deep into Dr. Duntsch‘s past, she is quick to learn that while he is known by all to be one of the most driven individuals, his closest family and friends express that he also lacks self-awareness. 

One former roommate chronicles Dr. Duntsch’s time spent trying to become a professional football player. While he perceives himself as a valuable team member, he was unable to learn and execute a single drill while he was on the Colorado State University’s football team.

So, was he intentionally ruining lives of his patients? Or was he so driven to become the best that he was unable to recognize his ability to be less than spectacular?

Regardless of his motivations, Beil provides a deep dive into the legalities of removing a doctor’s medical license and why Baylor Playno—the main hospital he operated out of—did not report him. She is able to simplify the legal jargon into an understandable and compelling narrative.   

Wondery and Beil have produced one of the most chillingly important stories in recent memory. Dr. Death sheds light on the importance of acting on what’s right rather than what’s easy.

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