Greg Mortenson, the embattled Bozeman author of the bestselling "Three Cups of Tea," underwent open-heart surgery last week out of state, a spokeswoman for the nonprofit Central Asia Institute said Wednesday.
Anne Beyersdorfer, acting director of CAI during Mortenson's absence, said doctors discovered that, in addition to having a hole in his heart, which left him with low oxygen levels, Mortenson had an aneurism on his heart, which could have been life-threatening.
"We feel very fortunate it did not burst or throw a clot," Beyersdorfer, a family friend and communications consultant, said in a phone interview. Mortenson's recovery is expected to take many weeks, if not months.
She declined to disclose where the surgery took place, saying she wanted to protect his privacy, revealing only that it was outside of Montana where Mortenson could get more comprehensive care. Surgeons repaired the hole and, in lay terms, tied down the aneurism, she said.
"He will be coming home to recuperate, but not yet," she said.
The surgery was first reported Tuesday by Newsweek reporter Mike Giglio on the Daily Beast website in an article headlined, "In Greg Mortenson's Silence, His Neighbors Defend Him, or Vilify Him."
The article reported on reactions from Bozeman residents like Mayor Jeff Krauss and former bookstore owner Mary Jane DiSanti to allegations from "60 Minutes" and author Jon Krakauer that Mortenson had lied in his best-selling memoir. The reports charged he fabricated stories about how he started on a mission to build schools for children, especially girls, in remote areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan and about how he was allegedly once kidnapped by Taliban sympathizers.
Charges that Mortenson misused money from the CAI charity which he co-founded to push book sales and that he spent less on schools than on self-promotion have prompted an inquiry by the Montana attorney general and a civil lawsuit by a Great Falls attorney.
The Daily Beast/Newsweek article also reported that:
- Two unnamed former CAI associates said they had been contacted by an agent with U.S. Secret Service, which investigates fraud at the federal level.
- Bozeman police were called April 25 to Mortenson's home, where his wife reported he was "assaultive" and "screaming"; that the police report noted Mortenson was under a doctor's care and taking medications that contributed to the disturbance; and that he was allowed to remain at home under the care of his doctor and a therapist.
- CAI had hired Burson-Marsteller, a global public relations firm, with Karen Hughes, former President George W. Bush communications advisor, when it became the target of damning media reports, but terminated the relationship after the initial media crush.
In response to this week's article, Beyersdorfer said neither she nor anyone at CAI has been contacted by the Secret Service, and she had no comment on the police report.
Asked about CAI's hiring of Burson-Marsteller, Beyersdorfer, who had sidestepped the question last month in an interview with the Chronicle, said the global company was hired before she became involved, when there had been a concern that CAI's small staff needed some support to handle the media crush. But once she came on board, they felt it was "important to remain authentic to the small staff" and the large firm was no longer needed. Beyersdorfer said she has worked in the past on Republican Senate and presidential candidates and former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
In response to the Daily Beast article, Beyersdorfer bristled at its quote from an anonymous "high ranking source" at Bozeman Deaconess Hospital, who said that when the stories broke and Mortenson first entered the hospital, "a hospital stay wasn't required at all" and it was "just a way to get out of the pressure." Beyersdorfer said Dr. Pam Hiebert, Mortenson's doctor, disagreed and that the comments violated federal law protecting patient privacy.
Beyersdorfer said CAI has hired attorneys to defend it from the civil suit, but declined to name the firm. The charity is looking into expanding its board of directors, now made up of Mortenson and only two other people, she added.
Beyersdorfer said donations continue to come in, though she had no numbers, and CAI is focusing on building a large number of new schools overseas this year.
"There is a large population of CAI supporters who have not lost faith," she said. "We're still very busy overseas.... The mission continues.
"What's most important are the people we serve and the relationships we established, and that doesn't stop for media misinformation.
"We're really happy Greg's heart is repaired, we're looking forward to his recovering" and returning to work on CAI's mission, she said, "despite the recent confusion."
Gail Schontzler can be reached at email@example.com or 582-2633.