At the time of his first surgery, when he was 6 weeks old, Miguel Angel Caballero-Perez should have still been growing in his mother’s womb.
He was born so prematurely — at about 25 weeks, or less than six months into his mother’s pregnancy — that the tiny hats he wore were actually mittens for full-term newborns. Doctors warned Maria Caballero-Perez that her son, who weighed only 11/4 pounds, would probably die.
Somehow, he survived.
Miguel Angel is now 19 years old. He has cerebral palsy, which limits his movement and learning ability, but he still graduated from high school earlier this year. He was the only student in the ceremony who accepted his diploma sitting in a wheelchair, according to his mother.
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“I cried and cried and cried,” she said.
Miguel Angel continues to meet with a teacher at home twice a week as part of the Miami-Dade County school district’s homebound-student program. After three more years of classes, he hopes to attend Miami Dade College.
“I’m going to someday study sports broadcasting,” said Miguel Angel, a fan of basketball, mixed-martial arts and fantasy football.
He spends most days in therapies and activities intended to keep him strong and engaged. Any given week includes counseling sessions and occupational, physical and equine therapy, where Miguel Angel practices sitting up straight on the back of a horse named Honey.
He has been swimming for so long in a county parks program for disabled youth that he’s literally become its poster child: a Miami-Dade parks brochure features a photograph of him smiling. He won gold in freestyle and breaststroke — as well as a sportsmanship award — at the 32nd Junior Orange Bowl Sports Ability Games earlier this month, according to his mother.
“I tell her, ‘I have gills. I don’t have lungs,’” Miguel Angel joked.
The feat is impressive considering that, two years ago, Miguel Angel was in the hospital for 64 days for his 12th surgery. Doctors inserted two metal rods and 24 screws in his back, and then Miguel Angel got an infection, his mother said, leaving him “back to zero” in terms of mobility. He is back to using either a wheelchair, a walker or crutches.
After the surgery, “I didn’t think I’d be able to walk, to be honest,” Miguel Angel said. “I think I was determined. And she’s always pushing me to do stuff.”
Caballero-Perez is divorced and has been Miguel Angel’s full-time caregiver for the past decade. The two live in the West Dade home of Caballero-Perez’s mother, 88-year-old Emelina Caballero. They rely on government programs — chiefly disability payments — and limited child support from Miguel Angel’s father, to get by.
She and her mother save what they can, Caballero-Perez said. They tucked money away for the two years before Miguel Angel’s graduation to fulfill his dream of going on a cruise. Miguel Angel came back from the trip with a new goal: to visit Australia.
For now, the family’s most pressing problem is moving Miguel Angel from his wheelchair into the car.
Caballero-Perez must carry her 150-pound son in and out of a lift on her Honda CR-V several times a day — a routine that has her suffering pain along her sciatic nerve, she said.
“It’s been 19 years of carrying him,” said Caballero-Perez, 58. “This thing about me being able to get him in the car is getting worse and worse and worse.”
Caballero-Perez would like to buy a van and equip it with a valet chair — an electrical seat that rotates outward to make it easier for a person to sit. She said she can afford a down payment on the van if she trades in the CR-V, but can’t afford the valet chair, which can cost up to $10,000, depending on the model.
For help, Caballero-Perez reached out to Parent to Parent of Miami, a nonprofit that educates families with children with disabilities. Celina Gonzalez, an education and support specialist with the agency, nominated Caballero-Perez for the Miami Herald Wish Book program, noting her devotion to her son.
“She has come to workshops to increase her knowledge of services and is always looking for opportunities for Miguel and other families,” Gonzalez said in her nomination.
Caballero-Perez is determined to keep her son’s busy schedule going for as long as possible.
“All I’m asking is for someone who could help us out so we can continue doing what we’re doing,” Caballero-Perez said. “The doctors, they can’t believe how well he’s doing.”
How to help
Wish Book is trying to help hundreds of families in need this year.
▪ To donate, pay securely at MiamiHerald.com/wishbook
▪ To give via your mobile phone, text WISH to 41444
▪ For information, call 305-376-2906 or email wishbook@MiamiHerald.com
▪ Most requested items: laptops and tablets for school, furniture, accessible vans
Read more at Miami Herald.com/wishbook