A Mother's Calling

Student Earns Master's Degree in Gerontology to Better Attend to her Brain-Injured Son

May 6, 2008

By Mimi Ko Cruz

The dreaded phone call no mother wants arrived on St. Patrick's Day 25 years ago.

A frantic voice on the line spewed only six words, over and over, each time louder and louder: "Mama come quick! Troy hurt bad!"

The voice belonged to a 9-year-old girl, the only person who could say a few words in English in a host family's home in Mexico , where 18-year-old Troy Amstuz was studying as an exchange student.

"I kept asking, 'Where is he? What happened? How do I get to him?' But, the girl on the line didn't understand me and would only shout those six words louder and she was crying," said Marjorie M. Amstuz, recalling the terrifying call that filled her with angst and wretched uncertainty about her youngest child.

There was no time to panic, even though there were no commercial planes going to the village where it was unknown whether her son was dead or alive. Amstuz, who was in Colorado Springs as a blizzard whipped through the air and snow covered the ground, enlisted her oldest son, Terry, who was in the Air Force, her co-workers and friends, who came to her aid. Within hours, she was on a chartered jet with a nurse and ventilator on her way to a small hospital in Hermosillo, Sonora.

"I would not have known him were it not for his hair," Amstuz said, recalling the moment she saw her son, whose skull was crushed with one eye protruding from its socket; his throat had an infected hole and his swollen face was drenched in blood spurting from his ears, mouth and nose.

He was kept alive by a hand-operated ventilator after suffering a brain-damaging accident that occurred when he was about to walk across a street and a speeding truck slammed into him.

Amstuz recounted the witness accounts with tears filling her eyes: the truck hit Troy's body with such force, it knocked him through the window, flipped him off the hood and sent him flying through the air 30 feet before bouncing his head on the concrete street.

Nearly two days after the accident, mother and son returned to the United States, where "the doctor said Troy had a very slim chance of living until morning," Amstuz said.

Still, he defied death, though remained in a coma.

"The doctors said he'd be brain dead forever and that I should donate his organs," Amstuz recalled.

Instead, Amstuz now 79 and about to receive her master's degree in gerontology from Cal State Fullerton held her boy's hand and sang Bible hymns and nursery rhymes to him. After three months, he responded.

She was singing "Five Little Ducks" when it happened.

"I told Troy, 'Now when we get to the quack, quack, quack part, you press my hand,'" she said. "So I was singing, 'Six little ducks that I once knew short ones, fat ones, skinny ones, too. But, the one little duck with the feather on his back, he ruled the others with his quack, quack, quack.' And my son squeezed my hand. . That's when I knew he was no vegetable."

Today, 43-year-old Troy walks, talks and lives in his own apartment in Los Angeles. The brain damage he suffered causes stroke-like symptoms, short-term memory loss and slightly slurs his speech, but with his mother's help, he lives happily and independently.

Using public transportation, she takes him grocery shopping, cooks some of his meals, writes checks and completes important paperwork for him. Amstuz also accompanies him to his acting classes. The two have even appeared as extras in movies.

"There's one mom in a million and I have her," Troy said. "She got me focused on getting well after my wreck. She has done remarkable things for me, and she teaches me through example that it's better to give than anything else. The world could take a lesson from her non-stopping ability to give. She keeps me healthy. God is good and God is great, but to me, God is fantastic because he gave me my mom."

One of the oldest members of the Class of 2008, Amstuz lives in a senior housing complex in Orange and takes the bus to her classes at Cal State Fullerton, where she will be receiving the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute's Outstanding Gerontology Graduate Student Award and the Outstanding Gerontology Project Award at her commencement reception Saturday, May 17.

"Marjorie has more energy than most of our young students, and she always has that smile and extra bit of excitement about learning," said Joseph A. Weber, associate professor of sociology. "Her sense of family and being a good mother comes first in everything she does. Whenever she sees fellow students feeling down or lonely, she gives them words of encouragement."

Amstuz's maternal instincts helped her choose her major.

"I wanted to study gerontology because many older people suffer from strokes, and I wanted to learn how to care for stroke victims and what can be done for them because the brain injury that occurs from stroke is very similar to Troy's brain injury, and he's my first priority," she said.

Her graduate project, "A Handbook on Acquired Brain Injury Concerning Coma, Care Giving and Compassion," focuses on her son's experiences and how to help.

In it, she concludes "new methods, medicines and treatments for the brain are being explored and implemented every day. Never give up on further recovery. Hope should never be lost."