US student detained by North Korea likely suffered a severe neurological injury just after his trial

Doctors caring for Otto Warmbier, the US student detained by North Korea and medically evacuated to his family in Cincinnati on Tuesday have said that his condition has caused serious damage to his nervous system, and that North Korea’s explanation for his condition doesn’t hold up.

Doctors described Warmbier as in a state of “wakeful unresponsiveness,” saying that he has not communicated or voluntarily moved since being reunited with his family.

But his condition could lead to long-term damage of his nervous system, which doctors said will likely never return to full functionality. The coma has led to “profound weakness” in his muscle tissues, according to the doctors.

Warmbier was serving a 15-year sentence for “anti-state” activities, which he was sentenced to after attempting to take down a propaganda poster in his hotel.

The trial took place over a year ago, and Warmbier is thought to have entered the coma in the weeks after the trial.

Though the medical staff caring for Warmbier “have no verifiable information about what happened to Otto,” they say Warmbier’s type of injury usually comes from cardio-pulmonary arrest, or a stoppage of the heart and lungs “resulting in the death of brain tissue.”

The story volunteered by North Korean officials — that Warmbier suffered from botulism, took a sleeping pill, and never woke up — could not be verified and did not hold up to medical scrutiny, the doctors said.

While botulism does cause nerve injury, doctors said that tests conducted “did not suggest any history of botulism.”

The damage to Warmbier is apparently limited to his nervous system, with no evidence of “acute or healing fracture,” suggesting that Warmbier wasn’t severely beaten, the doctors said.

Fred Warmbier
Fred Warmbier holds a press conference in the jacket his son stood trial in in North Korea. CNN

Upon arrival from North Korea, Warmbier was “well-nourished” and his skin was in “good condition,” according to the doctors.

Warmbier has been around his family continuously since his return to the US.

Fred Warmbier, Otto’s father, held a press conference earlier on Thursday wearing the jacket Otto wore in North Korea as he stood trial. The elder Warmbier expressed mixed feelings about his son being home.

“I would like to highlight this morning the bittersweet feeling that my family has. 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.”

“The Warmbier family has shown incredible courage, strength, and compassion. On behalf of the medical staff, nurses, and associates of the University of Cincinnati Medical Center, I can say it is our privilege to care for their son and brother,” concluded the doctor.

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