Doctors say US student freed by North Korea has brain damage

WYOMING, Ohio — An American college student who emerged from prison in North Korea in a coma has severe brain damage, but doctors don’t know what caused it, a medical team treating him in Ohio said Thursday.

The doctors described Otto Warmbier as being in a state of “unresponsive wakefulness” but declined to discuss his outlook for improvement, saying such information would be kept confidential.

“He has spontaneous eye opening and blinking,” said Dr. Daniel Kanter, director of neurocritical care for the University of Cincinnati Health system. “However, he shows no signs of understanding language, responding to verbal commands or awareness of his surroundings. He has not spoken.”

Warmbier, 22, is in stable condition at the UC Medical Center, where he was taken after his arrival in Ohio late Tuesday after more than 17 months in North Korean captivity. The reclusive country accused the University of Virginia student of anti-state activities.

His father, Fred Warmbier, said the family was proud of him, calling him “a fighter.”

The elder Warmbier said he didn’t believe North Korea’s explanation that the coma resulted from botulism and a sleeping pill. U.S. doctors said they found no evidence of active botulism, a rare, serious illness caused by contaminated food or a dirty wound.

He said there was no reason for North Korea to keep his son’s condition secret for more than a year and to deny him top medical care. Warmbier’s condition apparently deteriorated shortly after he was sentenced for subversion in March 2016.

Kanter said the young man suffered “extensive loss of brain tissue in all regions of the brain.” Doctors said his injuries are consistent with respiratory arrest cutting off oxygen to the brain, but they don’t know what caused it.

Doctors said they examined Warmbier’s body and saw no evidence of fractures that might be evidence of severe beatings.

The family feels “relief that Otto is now home in the arms of those who love him and anger that he was so brutally treated for so long,” his father said at Wyoming High School, where Warmbier graduated in 2013 as class salutatorian and played soccer.

Blue-and-white ribbons in the school’s colors were tied around trees and utility poles all the way along the city’s main road in a show of support.

To honor his son, Fred Warmbier wore the jacket the son wore when North Korea presented him before the media on Feb. 29, 2016, at an event at which he tearfully confessed that he tried to steal a propaganda banner while visiting the country. Otto Warmbier was sentenced the following month to 15 years in prison with hard labor.