Just a week or two ago, I was scrolling through the “true crime” offerings on Netflix, lamenting that I’d already seen (and heard) it all. I’ve watched every low-budget, badly reenacted documentary there is. I’ve heard every episode of My Favorite Murder. I’ve read Ann Rule and Zodiac and every JonBenét conspiracy theory I can find on Reddit. I’m in a Google Group and a Slack devoted to dissecting the grisliest murders. I believe Michael Peterson did it. Ditto the Making a Murderer guy. The search terms I use to find preferred Forensic Files episodes would be very troubling outside the context of the show. I’m not proud to admit it, but lately, true crime bores me — until, that is, I heard the first episode of Dr. Death.
I’d never heard of the podcast’s subject, a “surgeon” named Dr. Christopher Duntsch who was sentenced to life in prison for his crimes just last year. I don’t want to give away too much about those crimes, but the scare quotes are a pretty good clue — as a practicing neurosurgeon, Duntsch was responsible for gravely injuring several patients and killing two others via grotesquely botched procedures. But there is so much more to it than that — truly stunning details about Duntsch’s drug use, his delusions of grandeur, and the many, many opportunities his employers had to stop him, and didn’t.
A warning: please trust me that grotesque is more than deserved here. You won’t want to listen to this podcast while eating, and for some listeners it might be too much gore altogether. I listened in the car with my hand clamped firmly over my mouth, yelling “OH MY GOD” through my fingers every 20 seconds. This is a podcast about murder, yes, but it’s also about gross negligence, and the way institutions often work to protect their reputations even at the expense of those vulnerable groups they’re meant to protect. (This story reminds me, in that way, of the Catholic Church.) It’s terrifying to be reminded that doctors, too, can be very bad people, but it’s probably also useful — in establishing institutional accountability, but also in empowering patients to ask more questions, and get more opinions.
That said, only three of the show’s six episodes have been released so far, and by the end I may vow never to set foot in a doctor’s office ever again. As the best shows do, it gets worse and worse (which is to say, better and better) every episode. Please lie down in a calm, safe place (maybe with a bucket nearby) and listen to Dr. Death so we can scream about it together.