Doctors: Dutch prince suffered grave brain damage

February 24, 2012 - 1:06 PM
Dutch Prince

FILE - This Wednesday, Dec. 10, 2008 file photo shows Dutch Prince Johan Friso, left, and his wife Mabel, right, as they arrive for a gala dinner in honor of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Martti Ahtisaari, former President of Finland, at the Grand Hotel in Oslo. Austrian doctors treating the Dutch Prince Johan Friso say he suffered massive brain damage after being buried by an avalanche last week and he may never regain consciousness. Doctor Wolfgang Koller said Friday Feb. 24, 2012 that it took nearly 50 minutes to reanimate the prince. MRI scans have showed his brain suffered "massive damage" in the avalanche in Lech on Feb. 17. (AP Photo/John McConnico, File)

AMSTERDAM (AP) — A Dutch prince hit by an avalanche while skiing in Austria last week has suffered massive brain damage and may never regain consciousness, his doctors said Friday.

Johan Friso, the second of Dutch Queen Beatrix's three sons, was buried for 25 minutes before rescuers found him. It then took nearly 50 minutes to resuscitate the prince after he was pulled from the snow, time that may have caused permanent damage, said Dr. Wolfgang Koller, head of trauma at the Innsbruck hospital where the prince is being treated.

"It is clear that the oxygen starvation has caused massive brain damage to the patient," Koller said. "At the moment, it cannot be predicted if he will ever regain consciousness."

The 41-year-old Friso, who is married and has two young daughters, will be moved later to a rehabilitation clinic for further treatment. But Koller cautioned it may take years before he awakens from his coma — if he ever does — and any recovery from such significant brain damage is a process of "months or even years."

Friso was skiing off-trail in Lech, Austria, despite avalanche warnings, with a childhood friend from the alpine village. The Dutch royal family has been visiting Lech each winter for years.

The friend was carrying an avalanche "air bag" and escaped without serious injury. Friso was found with the help of a signaling device he was carrying and was flown by helicopter to the Innsbruck Clinic.

But "50 minutes of resuscitation is extremely long. You could say too long," Koller said.

The doctor said due to protocols for minimizing brain damage, it had only been possible to conduct an MRI scan of Friso's brain on Thursday.

"We had hoped that the slight cooling of the patient would protect his brain from too serious damage. Unfortunately this hope was not fulfilled," he said.

Friso is in a coma, a state of unconsciousness in which a person cannot be awakened by sound or touch. There are different levels of unconsciousness and unresponsiveness depending on how much brain function there is. Doctors did not give further details.

Members of his family, including his mother and Friso's older brother Crown Prince Willem-Alexander, have traveled to the hospital in a somber vigil. His wife, Princess Mabel, has worn black.

They appealed Friday for the media to respect their privacy. In a statement, the family said they "need space to learn how to deal with Prince Friso's health situation and to adjust their lives to it."

Prime Minister Mark Rutte called the queen Friday morning to tell her the "country sympathizes deeply with the royal family in this time of concern and grief."

The queen has said the family has been moved by the "countless" messages of condolence and encouragement they have received.

Friso, who worked for years as an investment banker for Goldman Sachs, had previously been a relatively low-profile member of the highly popular Dutch royal family.

The most public period of his life before the accident came during his engagement to Mabel, a Dutch woman whose maiden surname was Wisse Smit.

She worked for George Soros' Open Society Institute and was seen by the queen as an ideal daughter-in-law. But during her vetting to join the royal house, the pair decided not to disclose the full extent of a university friendship she had with drug baron Klaas Bruinsma, who was later slain in a gangland killing.

Wisse Smit said she hadn't fully understood who Bruinsma was at the time. But as details emerged in the Dutch press, then-Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende said he wouldn't propose the law needed for parliament to approve Wisse Smit's entry to the royal house.

According to the Dutch constitution, all royals require a law to be passed approving their marriages.

The couple acknowledged being "naive and incomplete" in what they told Balkenende.

Friso and Mabel decided to marry without seeking parliamentary approval, knowing the decision meant Friso would be cut from the royal house and line of succession. They are still members of the royal family and bear honorific titles of Prince and Princess of Oranje-Nassau.

Since his 2004 marriage, Friso has served on various supervisory boards, worked for charitable organizations and helped found a low-cost airline. In 2011 he left a position as managing director at investment firm Wolfensohn & Company to became the chief financial officer of Urenco, the European uranium enrichment consortium.

The couple lives in London with their two daughters, Luana, 6, and 5-year-old Zaria.

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George Jahn in Vienna, Mike Corder in the Hague, Netherlands, and AP medical writer Maria Cheng in London contributed to this report.