Medical examiners are working to determine what killed Otto Warmbier, the American college student who was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in North Korea after he confessed to attempting to steal a propaganda poster from his hotel.
Warmbier, who had been detained since March 2016, died in an Ohio hospital Monday, one week after the North Korean government medically evacuated him.
North Korean officials have said that Warmbier went into a coma not long after his incarceration, when he took a sleeping bill after a bout of botulism, a rare and potentially fatal form of food poisoning.
But the doctors who examined Warmbier told NBC News that they did not find any evidence he had contracted botulism. Further, doctors found Warmbier to be in a state of “unresponsive wakefulness” which is not the same condition as being in a coma, when a patient is not conscious at all.
North Korean officials reportedly said Warmbier had been in a coma for over a year, almost the entire time he was incarcerated. His family was unaware of his condition while he was in a North Korean prison.
According to NBC News, University of Cincinnati hospital doctors determined that Warmbier likely suffered from extensive oxygen deprivation, possibly as a result of a cardiac event.
“Patients who are in a persistent vegetative state after a cardiac arrest have a very low rate of recovery,” Dr. Andrew Naidech, a neurocritical care physician at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago, told NBC News.
The news station interviewed multiple doctors who offered varying opinions on how and why Warmbier died just a week after returning home. One possibility is a pulmonary embolism — a blood clot that travels to the lung, and could have been a result of a long plane journey. Further possibilities are kidney failure, or sepsis, a blood infection that often strikes in hospital settings.
According to NBC News, Warmbier’s father does not believe botulism was the culprit.
“Unfortunately, the awful torturous mistreatment our son received at the hands of the North Koreans ensured that no other outcome was possible beyond the sad one we experienced today,” Warmbier’s parents said in a statement announcing his passing.
“Although we would never hear his voice again, within a day the countenance of his face changed — he was at peace. He was home and we believe he could sense that.”
Feature photo: Associated Press