Sun River, Mont. • Chuck Merja is a hugger, but after being badly burned in a farming accident in May, he has to be careful.
For a Merja hug, put your right hand on his left shoulder and your left hand to his unburned right side. “I value hugs even more now,” he said.
Through seven months of recovery, including a month at Salt Lake City’s University of Utah Health Care-Intermountain Burn Center, Merja has known pain, frustration and so much love.
“I learned how many friends I have, which is huge. People have been so, so nice, and when I go to town, I have to take extra time. Everyone wants to talk,” the innovative farmer, former Hewlett-Packard employee and coach of a champion student robotics team told the Great Falls Tribune. “That’s really cool to feel wanted, needed.”
Too often we only say how much we value people at their funerals. Merja’s happy he “didn’t have to go that far” to know how he’d be remembered. Cards wishing him well covered a wall in his Salt Lake City hospital room. Many contributed to ease his medical expenses.
‘You should come find me’
On the afternoon of May 9, 2018, Merja was driving a spraying truck when he smelled it getting hot. He looked at the gauge, which read 220 degrees. He popped the hood and could see the radiator boiling over.
“Don’t be stupid,” he thought. “Don’t take that cap off.”
He was standing by the right front tire when a radiator hose blew apart.
If the radiator hose had blown while he was driving, or while he was standing on the other side, “no big deal,” he said. But he was in “exactly the wrong spot at exactly the wrong time.”
He was blasted by hot fluid. The pain was instantaneous and stunning. “That kind of ruined my day,” he said.
He recoiled and ripped off his shirt. He wishes he’d thought to drop his pants, too, for the boiling water pooled around his belt line. Sitting and driving are struggles still.
“I thought, this is not good,” he said. “That was the only time I thought about maybe leaving this world.”
He knew nobody was going to check on him for hours. He found his cellphone soaked in ethylene glycol and used a dry spot on his pants to wipe it. He called his wife, Stephanie.
“You should come find me,” he told her. “I’m going to be OK, but it’s not going to be pretty.”
And then he called 911. He wasn’t calm, he remembers. But the dispatcher was. He’d like to thank her for all she did.
His brother reached him first and poured water on him to cool him. The image of his brother’s horrified face is seared into his mind.
“I feel bad for him, too. I was in agony, and he poured this water on me, and I was in more agony,” he said.
‘Trying to stay alive’
By 11 o’clock the night of his accident, Merja was in University of Utah’s burn center. Staff there told Merja his brother made the right decision to stop the burning. They didn’t tell him that given his age — 65 — and the 23 percent of his body burned, he had very little chance of survival.
But Merja was reasonably fit, didn’t smoke and didn’t drink, and he was at a great burn center. So maybe, some staff thought, his odds were more like 50-50.
Running a marathon typically burns 2,600 calories. Merja burned 4,000 calories every day, barely able to move a pinkie, “just lying in bed trying to stay alive.”
His vision had been protected by sunglasses he was wearing over his glasses. But burns to his face and inside his mouth caused problems with eating and swallowing pills.
After a week or so, Merja was ready for surgery.
A doctor peeled skin from his thighs in three passes with a dermatome down the front of his left leg and two passes down the back of his right leg. Then the skin was perforated and stretched across his wounds. Little pink skin buds popped up in the holes in the skin graft.
Merja spent a month at the burn center before his outpatient treatment began, and then he returned home.
Stephanie was with him every day and night. He wouldn’t let her downplay how painful and difficult it was for her to go through watching him suffer and recover, the burn-care skills she learned, the jobs she took over at home. He still needs help putting on wound dressings and shirts.
The skin grafts on his torso are his main source of pain now. Wounds cover his abdomen and wrap around his back. They look excruciating, but they’ve finally closed in the past six weeks. He’ll wear a protective compression shirt for a year.
He feels like he’s tightly wrapped in bandages, but it’s his own flesh squeezing him. He has to consciously take deep breaths. The amount of flexibility he can develop by January is the amount he’ll have for the rest of his life. Stretching is paramount.
When friends have complimented how well he looks, he’s responded: “I look pretty good as long as I keep my shirt on. Steph says that’s kinda been going on for a while.”
‘How could I say no?’
In Sun River’s gym on a recent evening, Merja was checking in with students and answering questions.
Middle school boys were using Legos to build robots they pitted against each other in small battles. Other students were running a 3D printer, assembling robot frames and using design software. The oldest robotics team was testing a robot, logging outreach efforts and coding.
Doctors told Merja to take it easy as he heals, but 30 middle and high school students came out for robotics this year. “How could I say no?” he said.
During the summer, Merja had held a meeting with robotic kids. He wanted them to see he didn’t look scary and he wanted to warn them his energy level was only 10 percent to 20 percent of usual.
His injuries also had slowed his ability to concentrate, to reason, to tolerate noise. His brothers, nieces and wife carried a larger burden of the summer farm work, since the former Montana Grain Growers president couldn’t ride in vehicles, focus on the technology or even handle the paperwork.
“As I understand it, what happens in the neurotransmitters when you have a serious wound is normal traffic gets clogged up by the injured part of the body screaming for resources,” he said.
At that summer meeting, Luke Ostberg, a Fairfield sophomore on the RedNek Robotics team, noticed Merja’s new stammer and lower energy. Luke decided it was “time to step up,” and he and teammates spent two weeks cleaning and organizing the robotics labs.
In the past five years, the RedNeks have won the world championship three years and finished second once. They won a top-five spot on the FIRST Tech Challenge Legends list.
“I was instantly hooked,” Luke said. “It’s critical thinking in a pressure cooker, as Chuck says, and that’s my favorite part.”
Merja’s mental stamina is improving now, though he still has trouble finding words and doing things that were easy before the injury. The students and their parents are being patient with him, he said, and the competitions give him hope for the future.
“These kids are learning to problem solve and they’re learning to be critical thinkers, and we need that today and in tomorrow’s society,” he said. “I do this to encourage STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] but also building stuff. This country has forgotten how to build.”
Team member and Fairfield senior Adeline Hahn credits Merja with getting her interested in science.
“He’s just always supportive of people and wants to find ways to make science and technology available for everyone,” she said. “He’s always been really good about helping everyone.”
Merja is “a good leader and fun to be around,” Luke added. “If it had been worse, if he had died, it would have been really sad. I don’t think anybody could replace Chuck.”