A middle-aged man with greying, dirty blonde hair meekly weaved his way to the podium, leaving the prosecutors and Dallas County District Attorney Faith Johnson in the back of the media room at the Frank Crowley Criminal Courthouse on Monday afternoon.
Half paralyzed, the man leaned forward once he approached and put all his weight forward as he draped his arms around the lectern. Slowly, he opened his mouth and muttered something inaudible to the crowd. He took a breath, cleared his throat, and restarted.
“Excuse me if you can’t hear. I only have one vocal cord left,” he said. “My name is Jeff Glidewell, and I was the last patient of Dr. Duntsch.”
The press conference was being held shortly after the jury sentenced ex-neurosurgeon Christopher Duntsch to life in prison for maiming patients. Duntsch was charged with injury to a 74-year-old patient, a case in which he “intentionally, knowingly, recklessly, or with criminal negligence” harmed the individual. With the 13-day trial finally over, Johnson and the prosecutors deemed Duntsch’s “a historic case.”
Stephanie Martin, one of the prosecutors in the trial, said that as far as the team knows, there has not been any case in the U.S. where a doctor has been charged for his or her behavior in surgery. “If there had been only a few patients in the beginning, it would be different,” Martin said. “But Duntsch continued to harm patients on and on. If you detect this pattern early on, you should stop.”
Duntsch did not stop, Martin suspects, because he apparently saw the Texas healthcare market as a cash cow. “It was pretty clear the defendant had many lawsuits from Tennessee,” Martin said. “Hospitals like Baylor and the minimally invasive spinal clinic were giving him money to perform these surgeries, and we think he saw dollar signs form for him to alleviate his debt from school, from the lawsuits … and live the high life.”
Glidewell was one of the victims who testified against Duntsch. He said Duntsch’s actions were criminal instead of simple malpractice. “He cut a hole in my esophagus. Cut my left arterial artery. Cut my left vocal cord and left me half paralyzed,” Glidewell said. “Then he stuck a sponge into my esophagus and sewed me up, and managed to slip another sponge” in.
In addition to Duntsch’s neglectful medical practices, prosecutor John McCants said the ex-neurosurgeon’s egotistical demeanor supported the fact that Duntsch intentionally harmed patients.
“He is someone who called himself a cold-blooded killer—someone who called himself a god at times, or believed he was a god,” McCants said. “He was very narcissistic and he believed this was his playground … He could build anything, sell anything, ruin anything, and he would not suffer the consequences.”
Glidewell said that after Duntsch performed the operation, he told Glidewell’s family that he “found a tumor, so he had to do a biopsy and aborted surgery” in order to cover up his crime. Duntsch “left me lying in the ICU for three days to die,” Glidewell said. “He tried to kill me.”
McCants said that, given Duntsch’s history, he would have continued to harm patients. “That’s what’s great about his sentence,” McCants said. “He can’t harm anyone else any other place in America. No matter how much money there is to be made. No one else will be harmed by this man again.”