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Student Freed From North Korea Has Severe Brain Injury

| by Selena Darlim
Three hospital bedsThree hospital beds

Otto Frederick Warmbier, a 22-year-old University of Virginia student who was freed from North Korea to the U.S. on June 13, was confirmed by doctors to have a severe brain injury.  He has been in a coma since March 2016.

Warmbier was rushed to the a medical center upon arriving in Cincinnati shortly before 10:20 p.m. on June 13, according to an ABC News report.  He had been detained in North Korea for the previous 17 months for reportedly stealing a propaganda poster from a hotel while visiting the country with a tour group.

Dr. Daniel Kanter, director of the neuroscience ICU at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center, described the details of Warmbier's condition in a press conference on June 15.  

He announced that Warmbier "[showed] no sign of understanding language, responding to verbal commands or [being aware of] his surroundings."  Kanter described his condition as a being in a state of "unresponsive wakefulness." Though Warmbier has not spoken or moved with intent, he is able to breathe on his own.

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Doctors remain uncertain about the exact cause of Warmbier's condition, yet his family does not believe North Korea's claim that he fell into a coma after becoming ill with botulism and taking a sleeping pill.  

"This pattern of brain injury is usually seen as result of cardiopulmonary arrest where blood supply to (the) brain is inadequate for a period of time, resulting in the death of brain tissue," Kanter said.

Medical examination revealed no signs of botulism or broken bones. A CNN report said doctors found significant contractions and weakness in Warmbier's legs, though they are unsure of the cause.

Kanter declined to share Warmbier's prognosis in the press conference as is the family's request.  The confusion over Warmbier's injury is further complicated by the ambiguity over the grounds of his release.

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The U.S. State Department said on June 15 that the release was negotiated by Joseph Yun, special envoy to North Korea.  Yun reportedly also visited three other U.S. citizens that are currently being held in North Korea.  There is still little information as to the identity and condition of the three individuals.

There had been speculation as to whether Warmbier's release had anything to do with basketball star Dennis Rodman's recent trip to North Korea.  Rodman, who is friends with both U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, claimed he wanted to do "something pretty positive" during his four-day visit.  U.S. national security spokesman Michael Anton denied that Rodman had anything to do with Warmbier.

Wambier's release has also sparked conversations regarding North Korean tourism.

Business Insider reported that Young Pioneer Tours, the tour company that Warmbier used, did not mention the State Department travel warnings about North Korea.  One such unmentioned warning was "unduly harsh sentences for actions that would not be considered crimes in the United States."  The tour company also described North Korea as "probably one of the safest countries on Earth to visit."

Reuters reports that there have been 17 cases of U.S. tourists being detained in North Korea in the past decade.  Lawmakers proposed a bill in May that would restrict all tourism to North Korea, allowing American citizens to visit only after receiving special permission.

On June 14, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stated that U.S. officials were considering imposing those travel restrictions to North Korea.

Sources: Reuters, CNN (2), ABC News, Business Insider / Photo credit: Pixabay

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