In this true story about a killer surgeon, ‘Dr. Death’ wields a scalpel against a culpable medical system.
Dr. Christopher Duntsch was either a serial killer, a sociopath, or an extremely incompetent individual. Or any combination of the three.
From the moment showrunner Patrick Macmanus began writing “Dr. Death,” the Peacock miniseries that premieres Thursday — based on a Wondery true crime podcast about the spine surgeon’s demise — he knew one thing: There is no way to know why Duntsch destroyed so many lives.
“It would be simple to throw a black hat on the guy and call it a day because it would make us feel better to simply say he was a psychopath,” Macmanus told the Daily News. “However, the character’s truth is that he was more complex. He was a product of his nature, having been born, I believe, a narcissistic sociopath, nurtured throughout his upbringing, and then exploding into a full conflagration once he began to operate and people began to tell him how good he was.”
“He was a deeply flawed human being who found encouragement in everyone around him and leaned into his darkest instincts, which enabled him to become what he became,” Macmanus said.
Between 2011 and 2013, the real Duntsch, a Texas-based surgeon, injured or killed 33 of 38 surgical patients. In February 2017, he was sentenced to life in prison for intentionally inflicting serious bodily injury on an elderly woman — Mary Efurd, who was left wheelchair-bound following a botched 2012 spinal operation.
Dr. Death’s trial and conviction are well-known. The show is about how he got there, how a medical system designed to assist and protect patients allowed him to cycle through hospitals, leaving a trail of what medical records labeled “bad outcomes” — and what “Dr. Death” star Joshua Jackson refers to as “catastrophic, life-changing, you-never-come-back-from-it outcomes.”
“If Christopher Duntsch had been suspended following the initial surgery and never practiced again, it would have been tragic for him, but you would look at the system and say, OK, that makes sense. He made it through. That was heinous, but they apprehended him. They apprehended him because we are more important,'” Jackson told The News.
“Rather than that, the story teaches us that the profit motive takes precedence over patient outcomes. The system prioritizes its own protection over that of its patients, which is terrifying.”
Duntsch is eventually apprehended by an operating nurse (Hubert Point-Du Jour) who notices he is wearing the same scrubs as the previous day; two doctors, Randall Kirby (Christian Slater) and Robert Henderson (Alec Baldwin), who present their evidence to the state medical board, hospital directors, and district attorney; and an assistant district attorney, Michelle Shughart (AnnaSophia Robb), who pursues charges against Duntsch.
“We have a tendency to put doctors on a pedestal,” said Slater, whose storyline with Baldwin occasionally veers into buddy-cop territory, injecting levity into the otherwise dead-serious series.
“We go and entrust these men with our lives, hoping against hope that they will look after us and do the right thing. That was not the case in this case,” he explained to The News.
Robb emphasized the importance of heroes such as the assistant district attorney, Kirby, and Henderson — those who defy the system when it tells them to stop.
“People enabled him because he fit,” she explained to The News. “He was charming, good-looking, and white, and he earned money, was prosperous, and was well-educated. He checked every box.”
The film “Dr. Death” poses more questions than it answers: Why did Duntsch commit this act? Why was he not apprehended? Why was no one concerned? Is anything going to change?
“Heroism rarely falls into the laps of those who are typically portrayed as heroes,” Jackson told The News. “Yes, the CEOs of hospitals and institutions, as well as the medical boards, could have been heroes, but their motivation is to protect the system that pays them. It’s extremely difficult to persuade someone of something when their livelihood depends on them not believing it.”
“Not only did the system not do what it was supposed to do, it did the exact opposite,” he stated. “It says some truly dark and frightening things about the man, but also about the system in which we all place our trust to protect us in our most vulnerable moments.”