NEW ORLEANS -- It started with back pain, and despite surgery and physical therapy, doctors couldn't figure out how to stop it from leaving a woman in her 20s paralyzed from the waist down.
Within five years, a local law school student was confined to a wheelchair, but she hasn't let it stop her.
Law school isn't easy for anyone. Yet, at first glance, Angel Perez makes it look like it is.
For Angel, getting here was anything but.
“By this time, I thought I'd be finished law school and you know studying for my bar, and getting ready to go apply for jobs and being an attorney by now,” Angel said.
Things take a little more time for Angel now and a lot of extra effort. It takes her three tries, in fact, just to get into her house.
“What caused all of this? I have no idea. And I don't think any of them really know,” Angel said.
“It was just progressing so fast. We were looking for answers,” her mom, Toni said.
Doctor after doctor still can't seem to figure out why the discs in her lumbar or lower spine have essentially crumbled. It's called juvenile discogenic disease, and it first pierced her life five years ago.
“I woke up and I was just screaming. I couldn't move,” Angel said, “I was having, like, lightning down me. It just felt like my legs were on fire. It was burning. I felt like I was sitting on needles.”
Her spine broke down so quickly that in less than five years, she had to learn how to move her legs, by picking them up one at a time with her arms. She also had to figure out how to walk around a house that's not handicap accessible, going from 5'10" tall, to 4'8". “I would sit there and I would beat on them. Like, just work. What is wrong with you? Just work,” Angel said.
All the while, her younger sister Nique started having similar problems.
“I don’t want that to be me. And knowing there's a good possibility if they don't figure this out, that's gonna be me,” said Dominique “Nique” Perez.
“You can poke me with anything. You can put me in any machine. You can do anything whatever you want if it's gonna keep her from having to deal with this, then I would do anything,” Angel said.
Because both daughters were losing function, their mother, Toni, started searching for a genetic cause, but kept hitting dead ends. She did, however, get one answer she never expected after giving blood at work. At age 54, she found out she was adopted when her blood type didn't match her parents.
Her aunts and uncles confirmed her suspicions.
“They had made a promise to Mom and Daddy to never tell me unless I asked. But I mean, my children are sick. So, this wasn't a secret to keep. I should've known,” Toni said.
It was a closed adoption and she has no medical history that might help ease her daughters' pain and money's now tight. She already took out a mortgage on the house to pay for medical bills and school.
“You think you're OK. You're a middle class family. You're doing fine. And then this happens. And all of a sudden you're not doing so fine,” Toni said.
She can't afford to finish the house or make it handicap accessible for Angel.
“I can't fit in the closet, so we had to get clothes racks for them,” Angel said as she showed us her new living space.
Angel and Niqui's shared bedroom is the old dining room of the house, complete with a low-hanging chandelier that's used to light the dining room table. Angel's closet is in the foyer.
Every day she passes a staircase she can never climb again to go to a bathroom so small, she can't shut the door.
“Nothing is the same. You have to re-learn how to do everything from a different position,” Angel said.
Both Angel and her mom work in the St. John Parish District Attorney's Office. They work full time, and now four days a week Toni drives Angel nearly an hour to and from Loyola for law school at night.
Angel goes to class while Toni sits in the car.
“I don't know if I could ever tell her how much I appreciate what she's done for me,” Angel said about her mother.
The three Perez women live for each other -- OK, maybe Angel lives a little bit for her shoes.
“There is not a flat in sight,” she said.
Her favorites have glitter on the heels, and she said they can't exactly hurt feet she can't feel.
Her smile is infectious. It even radiates from her eyes.
“Some people pity me. Which I don't… I'm OK. You know? It's not the way I would've chosen to live. But I have a good life,” Angel said.
She wants everyone to know she has the whole world ahead of her, even if it is on wheels.
Angel hopes to graduate law school and become an assistant district attorney. Niqui wants to get her master's in psychology and eventually provide mental health care in St John Parish.