Faith, friends help them overcome physical challenges
Paul and Maureen Pranghofer were born without some of the things that most people take for granted.
He has no arms, and one leg is much shorter than the other. She has no sight and suffers from brittle bone disease.
But the couple has demonstrated through a lifetime of achievements that their “disabilities” haven’t really disabled them.
Guided by a strong faith and with the help of friends, a series of service dogs and each other, they’ve overcome their physical challenges and a couple of serious accidents to lead active, busy lives.
And they’re using their talents to make life better for others.
Both 59, the Pranghofers live in a yellow rambler complete with attached garage and family van on a quiet street in the Minneapolis suburb of Golden Valley, where they’ve spent nearly 30 of the 35 years they’ve been married.
“I don’t think I’m different from anybody else,” said Paul, who can walk but mostly gets around in a wheelchair.
“It’s a great day to be alive,” he later jotted in a notebook with a pen clenched in his teeth. The writing demonstrates that even without arms he can perform many of the same tasks as others while the words reflect his upbeat outlook.
“I think we’re healing all the time,” said Maureen, who uses a walker but hopes to discard it someday.
“I am who I am,” she said, acknowledging she can’t do everything everyone else can.
But “there’s no reason to feel sorry for myself. I don’t look at myself as being a lot different.”
Born three months prematurely, Maureen has been legally blind since birth because her retinas weren’t developed. She never had any vision in her right eye but had limited sight in the other one until she became totally blind in 1993. The bone disease has caused her to have more than 100 fractures.
Paul was born during the era when thalidomide caused an epidemic of birth deformities, but his mother never took the drug, he said, so doctors describe his condition as the result of “congenital defects.”
Her handicaps didn’t stop Maureen from graduating fourth in her class at Lester Prairie High School in 1972, earning a bachelor of arts degree in music therapy from the College of St. Teresa in Winona in 1976 and working on a master’s degree in social work at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.
Paul graduated from Minneapolis Marshall High School in 1972 and earned an associate degree in computer programing from Control Data Institute, then worked as a software developer for many years.
He uses his left foot to feed himself and to work the mouse on his voice-activated computer. He drives using a device that allows him to steer with his normal left leg and foot while an extension lets him work the accelerator and brake with his shorter right leg.
The two met as 10 year olds at Camp Courage near Maple Lake where Paul caught Maureen’s eye in a Frosted-Flakes-eating contest. “I ate a lot of Frosted Flakes,” he laughed. “I ate 12 boxes” to help their table win. “That impressed me,” she said, “because it was because of you that we won.”
Their paths crossed again years later, and their official first date was at the 1977 Minnesota State Fair. “I’m proud to say we haven’t missed a fair since,” Paul said, explaining they’re drawn by the food and atmosphere.
They were married in 1978 and will celebrate their 35th anniversary on Sept. 23.
But the road to living happily ever after took a detour in 1993 when an elevator Maureen and her power wheelchair were riding at the U of M stopped about 3 feet above floor level. When the doors opened, she fell face-first to the floor.
The impact caused something like shaken-baby syndrome, she said, damaging the retina in her good eye and extinguishing her sight. Now she has two artificial eyes.
Then in June 1996, both she and Paul, who was driving, were injured in a crash on Highway 55 east of Annandale. All the bones in Paul’s short leg were shattered, and a plate was inserted. “I can walk short distances,” he said, and he’s able to climb stairs.
Maureen’s injuries were more serious. “I had multiple fractures on both sides of my body and a spinal cord injury,” she said.
“My diagnosis was total quadriplegia. The only movement I had was this hand – the left hand.”
She spent 16 months in a nursing home, then needed 24-hour-a-day care when she came home and remained “very dependent” for the next 11 years.
They were considering moving to a handicap-accessible home in the spring of 1997 when their neighbors found out and told them they were too important to the neighborhood, Paul said. “They wanted us to stay here.”
Paul and Maureen could afford the materials for a house makeover, he said, but not the labor for what he estimated would have been a $200,000 project. So over the next six months, “our neighbors probably put in well over 1,000 hours of labor to make the house useable for Maureen and me.”
They widened the doorways and took out the carpet to make it easier for them to navigate in wheelchairs. They made space in the kitchen to store utensils at floor level so Paul can reach them with his feet.
They installed a walk-in shower and waterproofed the rest of the bathroom. And they built a wheelchair ramp to the side entrance through the garage.
Then about six years ago Maureen began to make a dramatic recovery from her crash injuries. “I have gained almost everything back that I lost,” she said, and she expects to be able to once again walk without a walker. “I don’t know when, but I trust in the Lord that it will happen.”
After years of requiring the constant help of a personal care assistant for Maureen, “since 2010 we’ve been on our own with just about four hours of PCA a week,” she said. The assistants basically change the bed sheets, Paul said, since he and Maureen can’t do it themselves.
Maureen sees the work of God in her improvement, which began almost immediately after she decided to forgive her mother over some lifelong issues. “I forgave her and 24 hours later my body strength doubled, and ever since then I have been practicing forgiveness.”
Ally, one of nine service and guide dogs she’s had since 1977, deserves credit too, she said. “Ally was a big help.” Unable to move after the crash, she was depressed and couldn’t do anything for herself.
But “when I got Ally I realized I could be home by myself. … I stopped feeling sorry for myself and started to want to go out and do things.” Maureen wrote Ally’s Busy Day in 2005 to teach children about service dogs and tell how Ally helped her recover.
Ally was getting old and she retired about two years ago. Her successor, Bentley, was only 3, but he was diabetic and retired in June. While they provide a lot of help getting around, service dogs also take a lot of work, Maureen said, and she has no immediate plans to get another.
Devout Christians and longtime members of the nondenominational Church of the Open Door in Maple Grove, Maureen and Paul said their faith has overcome the limitations they were born with.
“I just believe your faith in God can overcome most anything,” Paul said.
“I would say the Lord is the center of both of our lives,” Maureen added, “and we operate according to what’s in the Bible for the most part. The Bible says the world is full of tribulations, but that if I’ve chosen God, I will overcome the world. In the end God is going to win, and it’s going to come out OK.”
They also help each other. When Paul decided during the interview to change his shirt for a photo, Maureen gave him a hand slipping out of the old and into a new one. Later, he searched the screen of her talking computer and manipulated the mouse with his foot to help her locate some photos.
Maureen does most of the cooking, but Paul puts the eggs in the pan for her to fry, she said, and tells her which way to place the fish fillets. He often gives her directions to help her locate items and avoid obstacles.
Humor is important, they said, and they even joke about their physical shortcomings. When they’re out driving in the van “he tells me I don’t wave correctly,” Maureen said, “and I tell him you can’t wave at all.”
“He’s my eyes, and I’m his hands,” she once told a television reporter. “Between the two of us, there’s enough working parts to make one person.”
The Pranghofers are active in their community and church and have a support system of neighbors and friends.
“At Open Door, we have known and loved Maureen and Paul for a very long time and we consider them to be a treasure,” pastor David Johnson said. “The life and light of Christ shines through the frailty of their bodies more than anyone I know.”
“We’ve always been blessed to have good people around us that have always supported us,” Paul said, and the couple gives back when their help is needed.
Now retired from his programing job, Paul continues to work part time for the Minnesota State High School League refereeing adapted soccer, floor hockey and softball games for handicapped athletes as he’s done for 31 years. “I just enjoy officiating,” he said. “I enjoy working with the kids.”
He teaches a computer course to cognitively challenged adults and has made four mission trips to Slovakia and five to Haiti, where his church helped build a house in Port-au-Prince for 25 special-needs kids.
“I’m the sports guy,” Paul said, organizing soccer drills for the youngsters and spending one-on-one time with them. He plans to return to Haiti again in January and hopes to keep going back as long as he’s able.
Maureen spends a lot of time running her own business, Braille It, in which she turns written or recorded words into Braille for the blind to read. She’s done Braille menus for a couple of her favorite restaurants and has been working on a long-term project converting a blind poet’s Braille writings to print.
She’s also a song writer, singer, piano and guitar player and has her own website at maureensmusic.com. She’s written several hundred Christian songs and recorded some of them. One, I Choose You, placed in the top five two years ago in a national competition for Christian song writers at the Gideon Media Arts Conference in North Carolina.
Three CDs of songs she recorded or wrote – Arise, Some Run the Race and Maureen’s Open Door Compilation – are available at cdbaby.com.
Maureen and Paul make frequent appearances as motivational speakers, telling their inspiring story to area church, youth and civic groups. “People are very interested in our lives,” she said, “how do we do things, what’s happened to us.”
When they speak to youth groups, they often wind up discussing the problems they had being accepted by their high school classmates. “Kids still have that problem today,” Maureen said. Every teenager worries about not fitting in and what they can do to be more popular. “They know what we’re talking about.”
“Don’t focus inside yourself,” she advised others who are struggling to overcome obstacles. “Look around at all the great things.” When people are having problems, it’s because they’re living only for themselves.
“You always find somebody who’s worse off than you,” Paul agreed, “if you just look around.”
“Instead of thinking of what you can’t do, look at what you can do,” Maureen said. And “be open to asking for help.”