Student imprisoned in North Korea in “a state of unresponsive wakefulness”

American student Otto Warmbier speaks as Warmbier is presented to reporters Monday, Feb. 29, 2016, in Pyongyang, North Korea. North Korea announced late last month that it had arrested the 21-year-old University of Virginia undergraduate student. (AP Photo/Kim Kwang Hyon)

CINCINNATI, Ohio (WDTN) – The college student who was imprisoned in North Korea, suffered a severe neurological injury which left him in – what doctors are calling – “a state of unresponsive wakefulness.”

Doctors at UC Health in Cincinnati say although 22-year-old Otto Warmbier is awake, he’s seemingly unaware of his surroundings and unable to communicate.

“He has spontaneous eye opening and blinking. However he shows no signs of understanding language, responding to verbal commands, or awareness of his surroundings,” neurologist Dr Daniel Kanter said.

“He has not spoken. He has not engaged in any purposeful movements or behaviors.”

Among the battery of tests Otto Warmbier underwent at UC Health: a brain scan which showed “extensive loss of brain tissue” in all areas of the brain.

Based on MRI images provide by North Korean officials, Cincinnati doctors believe the brain injuries happened last April.

Neurologist Dr Brandon Foreman said: ” As we attempt to interact with him, give him verbal directions or verbal cues, he has no consistent responses to those.”

Such injuries, doctors say, usually come about as a result of inadequate blood supply to the brain.

“This can occur from cardiac arrest along where the heart stops pumping blood or from a respiratory arrest where there’s inadequate oxygen to the body at which point, then the heart will stop functioning correctly,” Dr Kanter said.

Warmbier’s vitals are stable and he doesn’t require oxygen. He has no signs of infection or trauma to any limbs, bones, or organs.

North Korean officials blamed Otto’s condition on botulism combined with a sleeping pill.

Officials in Ohio say they can’t say for sure what may have caused it.

Dr Jordan Bonoman, a neuro-intensivist, said: “Respiratory arrest in a young, otherwise healthy person – it’s a rare event generally caused by something like an intoxication or traumatic injury.”

As for whether Warmbier will be able to recover, doctors at UC Health say information regarding his prognosis and prospects for improvement will remain confidential at request of family.

Warmbier spent 17 months behind bars in North Korea.

His father, Fred Warmbier, said his son was “brutalized” while in North Korea and he doesn’t believe the North Korean’s explanation about what exactly happened to his son.

“Even if you believe their explanation of botulism and a sleeping pill causing the coma – and we don’t – there is no excuse for any civilized nation to have kept his condition secret and denied him top notch medical care for so long,” he said.

Fred Warmbier said said the family has many questions about what happened to his, but few answers

“There’s no excuse for the way North Korea has treated our son and no excuse for the way they’ve treated so many others,” he said.

“I call on them to release the other Americans being held. No other family should have to endure what the Warmbier’s have.”

Otto Warmbier was sentenced to hard labor back in March 2016 after he tearfully confessed that he tried to steal a propaganda banner while visiting the country. provides commenting to allow for constructive discussion on the stories we cover. In order to comment here, you acknowledge you have read and agreed to our Terms of Service. Commenters who violate these terms, including use of vulgar language or racial slurs, will be banned. Please be respectful of the opinions of others and keep the conversation on topic and civil. If you see an inappropriate comment, please flag it for our moderators to review.

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