Otto Warmbier, the 22-year-old former college student imprisoned for over a year in North Korea, died on Monday afternoon, leaving behind a mourning family and some serious questions with potentially far-reaching consequences. Doctors hadn't been hopeful about the young man's chances for recovery, but now Otto Warmbier's official cause of death might never be known.
According to The Cincinnati Enquirer, the Hamilton County Coroner's Office performed only an "external examination" on Warmbier's body, rather than the traditional intensive autopsy, which his family declined. In order to confirm almost any cause of death, Warmbier's body and brain would have to be posthumously examined. Since that likely won't happen, the world might never know exactly why Warmbier died.
Warmbier's family was reportedly by his side when he passed away, less than a week after he returned to the United States in a state of unresponsive wakefulness.
The Warmbier family said in a statement:
It would be easy at a moment like this to focus on all that we lost — future time that won't be spent with a warm, engaging, brilliant young man whose curiosity and enthusiasm for life knew no bounds. But we choose to focus on the time we were given to be with this remarkable person.
The official story offered by the North Koreans was that Warmbier had been in a coma for over a year before he was released after contracting botulism while in custody and taking a sleeping pill. However, doctors at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center refuted this version of events, saying it was inconsistent with medical evidence.
"We have no certifiable knowledge of the cause or circumstances of his neurological injuries," Dr. Daniel Kanter, professor of neurology and director of the Neurocritical Care Program, said during a press conference upon Warmbier's arrival in the United States. "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."
Warmbier's death is part of a long and tragic chain of events that links the United States and North Korea, but it's too early right now to know if any changes in American policy will come in its wake. There's no telling when or how the international status quo may shift from this single incident, and how exactly he died may remain a mystery as well.