NEWS 8 INVESTIGATES
DALLAS -- A Dallas spine surgeon accused of botching multiple surgeries and causing two patient deaths is at the center of regulatory debate.
That surgeon's alleged actions have led to two lawsuits and several complaints to state. But while his license has been temporarily suspended, questions remain as to why Dr. Christopher Duntsch was allegedly still operating more than a year after state officials were first warned.
Dr. Duntsch of Plano had billed himself as one of the best spine surgeons in North Texas. Prospective patients like Jeff Glidewell of Forney believed they were in expert hands.
But on June 10 of this year, while Duntsch was attempting to fuse Glidewell's spine, something went wrong.
Duntsch allegedly began operating on the wrong vertebrae, and according to a complaint to the Texas Medical Board, damaged his esophagus.
"I was told that doctors had to restrain him to make him quit, because I was going to bleed out," Glidewell said.
When he awoke, Glidewell said his left arm was paralyzed and he couldn't swallow. Days later, a new surgeon discovered a surgical sponge left inside Glidewell's neck.
Now, nearly five months later, Glidewell says he is still in pain, can barely swallow, and his emotional wounds are deep.
"I still cry all the time and it's just tough," Glidewell said.
But perhaps most disturbing for Glidewell was learning of the others -- that since January 2012, Dr, Christopher Duntsch's alleged surgical mishaps had left one of his patients a quadriplegic and severely injured at least four others.
According to a complaint to the state, two of his patients died last year soon after surgery.
Kellie Martin bled to death after spine surgery in March. Floella Brown died of excessive blood loss following a surgery four months later.
Attorney Frank Branson represents the Brown family, which is suing Duntsch for wrongful death.
"He gets in the operating room, operates at the wrong level, then exposes the vertebral artery and punches a hole in it and causes her to die," Branson said.
He said the Texas Medical Board, which licenses doctors, should have suspended Duntsch long before his client died.
"Our system failed Ms. Brown, and it failed these other victims," Branson said.
Before Floella Brown, there was Barry Morguloff of Dallas.
"Duntsch ruined my life,” Morguloff told News 8.
He went to Duntsch for a lumbar fusion in January of 2012. He said he emerged from surgery with more pain than before. So much pain, in fact, he was forced to stand at times during our interview.
He described the intensity as he stood.
“The pain is in the left leg, left buttocks. It's like a knife," he said.
On Oct. 12, 2012, Morguloff filed a complaint against Duntsch with the Texas Medical Board in Austin.
"Please help,” he asked them.
And he was not alone. News 8 has learned of multiple complaints filed with the Texas Medical Board against Duntsch since mid-2012.
Few tried harder than Dallas Spine surgeon Robert Henderson, M.D.
“[Duntsch] was a loose cannon out there, and was a significant risk to the public,” Henderson said.
In July of 2012, Henderson was brought in to salvage an alleged botched spinal fusion on Mary Efurd of Plano. He said he found a spinal implant attached to a muscle and holes drilled in the wrong bones.
"It was just inconceivable that a trained surgeon could do this,” Henderson said.
Henderson said he immediately filed a complaint with the Texas Medical Board and followed up with several phone calls.
"I never got any feedback whatsoever from the Texas Medical Board,” he said. “By law, by statute, they say they are supposed to respond to me in thirty days, and keep me updated every three months."
Henderson said he never heard back.
As for Barry Morguloff, who filed his complaint in October last year, the Texas Medical Board did get back with him on June 14 of this year, four days after Duntsch allegedly botched Jeffery Glidewell's surgery.
The Board wrote Morguloff saying the evidence in his case "does not suggest that Dr. Duntsch's surgery was done in an improper manner." His complaint was dismissed.
Morguloff questions the intensity of the state's investigation.
“I contacted them multiple times,” Morguloff said. “I was told they couldn't tell me anything, that it was still under investigation. They asked for no records, no authorizations. They asked for nothing."
Finally, on June 23, 2013, another Dallas doctor, Randall Kirby M.D., filed yet another complaint with the state alleging Duntsch had "maimed or killed, in the operating room, seven patients."
Three days later, on June 26, the Texas Medical Board held an emergency hearing and temporarily suspended Duntsch's license to practice. He has not operated since.
As to why it took them more than a year to act, Texas Medical Board officials declined an on-camera interview but gave us this statement:
"State law requires the Board to follow a very specific process for investigating standard of care complaints. It would be an incorrect assumption that the Board waited more than a year to act when a complaint was filed. The TMB is committed to working with lawmakers on the extremely serious patient safety issues raised by the Duntsch case."
But those blaming Duntsch for ruining their lives say the Texas Medical Board’s process of protecting the public doesn't work.
"I don't know what they are doing at the Texas Medical Board, but they are not doing their job,” Glidewell said.
Duntsch has denied allegations of malpractice and sub-standard care both in court records and before the Texas Medical Board.
"I have done nothing wrong," Duntsch told News 8 by phone. "I have been reviewed and every one of these cases is based on allegations that are not true."
The Texas Medical Board will hold a hearing early next year on whether to permanently strip Duntsch of his license.