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State Department says it's working with family of comatose exchange student

Posted by: Jenna Ross Updated: February 14, 2014 - 5:24 PM

The U.S. government is pledging to be flexible in working with the family of a 20-year-old Pakistani man lying in a coma at a Duluth hospital with a soon-to-expire student visa.

A spokesman with the U.S. State Department said Friday that it is not refusing to extend Muhammad Shahzaib Bajwa’s visa — pushing back on the hospital’s earlier statement that the department “is not renewing Mr. Bajwa’s visa.”

“We are working closely with the family as they determine next steps,” spokesman Mark Thornburg said in a statement, “and have ensured that the student remains in status while they work through these difficult decisions.”

In fact, Thornburg said, the department helped fly Bajwa’s family members to Duluth, where he’s been treated at St. Mary’s Medical Center since a November car collision with a deer. Bajwa had been studying anthropology and sociology as an exchange student at the University of Wisconsin-Superior.

Bajwa’s older brother, Shahraiz Bajwa, said earlier this week from Duluth that the family was being pressured to send Shahzaib Bajwa back to Pakistan. He and his mother had worried that Shahzaib wouldn’t survive the 24-hour flight.

Shahraiz Bajwa, 22, was relieved Friday to hear of the State Department’s statement. “We were assured by the Pakistani consulate in Chicago that they will resolve this issue by Monday or so,” Shahraiz Bajwa said. “Then we will have one less thing to worry about.”

A spokeswoman for Essentia Health, which runs St. Mary’s, said that “it’s the first we’ve heard” that the State Department will ensure that Shahzaib’s visa remains valid. “It is great news,” Maureen Talarico said by e-mail. She declined to comment on the hospital’s plans for Bajwa and whether an extended visa would change them.

“Our focus at St. Mary’s Medical Center is on the health and care of this patient while he is at our facility,” she said. “This includes protecting his privacy.”

Shahzaib Bajwa had taken out travel insurance capped at $100,000 for emergency medical care, his brother said. So far, expenses have surpassed $350,000. But St. Mary’s has not yet tapped the insurance, Shahraiz said, with the idea that it could pay for his care in Pakistan.

Their attorney, Saiko McIvor, with the Minneapolis-based law firm Dorsey & Whitney, said earlier this week that Bajwa’s visa expires Feb. 28. But an extension would fix only one of two problems, she said. “That doesn’t solve the situation of where he’s going to be.”

While hospital officials are “doing their best to accommodate the family,” McIvor said, it’s also dealing with growing medical bills. The family started a crowdfunding website to help pay for his medical expenses. As of Friday evening, they had raised nearly $95,000.

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