A Question of Hope

One family's struggle to escape the devastation of gang culture

At the desk, two attendants converse without urgency.
"Are you on the floor?"
"What?"
"Are you on the floor?"
"Eh?"
"Are you on the floor?"
"No, I'm not on the floor. I'm sitting down."

An elderly female resident totters up to the desk and addresses the attendants, one of whom responds: "I don't know if you can have a cigarette. You have to ask your nurse. I am not your nurse."

In the recreation room, four geriatric patients are propped up in wheelchairs. One of them groans incessantly. Another wearing a ballcap with the legend "American Harmonica Newsletter" stares at the television, which is turned off.

It is here, at the Thunderbird Health Care Center, that Adela nurtures her son.

"I clean him every morning. I shave him, I wash his hair, his nails, his feet. I check his teeth. I also massage him with olive oil."

On many days, Boy is smiling, happy, and greets visitors he recognizes. He signals a limited range of responses, one finger for yes, two for no, and three for maybe.

On other days, he is not responsive at all. A bottle of Novart's Nutrition provides his calories through an intravenous tube. Occasionally, he is hooked up to an oxygen machine.

Though he shares the room with two other patients, his mother and stepfather have attempted to create an atmosphere of comfort in the space allotted to Joseph Jr., papering the walls with inspirational, religious posters as well as cards and photographs of those Boy loves.

From this nest, Adela wages a nonstop battle with the nursing-home administration.

"He doesn't fit into his bed," Adela says of her tall son. "I asked them for a longer bed because he's all scrunched up all the time. They told me I could always buy one, or rent one."

Adela is informed that Boy would not get physical therapy because he'd spent nearly a year after the shooting without it, and too much time has passed for exercise to do any good.

She refuses to accept that answer and eventually wins the argument.

After participating in a program to build up his strength, Boy is discovered outside, tipped out of a wheelchair and sprawled on the ground.

"He tried to run away," says Adela. "Their solution was to take away the therapy."

Perhaps nothing frustrates Adela more than the staff's seeming inability to keep her boy clean and dry.

"I have to go for a walk until I cool down," says Adela. "When I complain, they tell me, 'It's not my job to change those wet clothes.'

"Joseph gets angry when he soils himself. He waves one finger angrily."

Arriving with a visitor, she discovers her son soaking wet. Her eyes pooling with tears, she tells Boy, "I'll change you best I can. Boy, you are not a burden to me. The system is a burden to me, but I am blessed by being your mother."

Wrestling her broken son out of soaking linens and pajamas is strenuous business. Afterward, with Joseph Jr. in a wheelchair, she rails against those who work at the home.

"We want the wrath of God on them," she tells Boy, who smiles and raises one finger skyward.

One March night, the evening temperature dips with chilling showers. Boy's roommate wakes in the early morning, shivering from the cold. When the roommate gets out of bed to shut the open window, he finds Boy soaked in urine.

Adela arrives the next day to discover her son's eyes sticky with mucus. Within 24 hours, he is wheezing with congestion. By Saturday, Adela is alarmed when Boy does not respond to her. Disturbing body fluids drain from his nose and mouth; he has dried feces under his fingernails from tearing at his soiled garments. His temperature is 104 degrees.

Boy is moved to Maricopa Medical Center.

When he recovers, he is transferred back to Thunderbird, which proclaims ignorance to Adela's grievances.

"The facility has no record of complaints made by the mother or anyone else," says nursing home spokesman Doug Cole. "We know that the mother was very involved, a frequent visitor. I can tell you that the mother requested, after one of the hospital stays, that her son be returned to our facility."

Almost from the moment Joseph Ayala Jr. arrived at the nursing home in September 1997, his mother had tried to get him transferred to a residential care facility in Flagstaff. At first, she was motivated to relieve her own burden. Before long, however, she is driven by desperation to rescue her son from what she views as filth and neglect.

And then, a fairy godmother rescues Adela. Her name is Margo Cruz. Cruz, who works for the state in vocational rehabilitation, did not know Adela or Joseph, nor were they part of her job responsibilities. Cruz is simply a busybody, a do-gooder who is used to working with the handicapped and who heard about this mother and son from an acquaintance.

"I felt sickened when I saw this young man in the nursing home," says Cruz. "And I have never seen such a loyal, devoted, loving mother."

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