SUN RIVER — Chuck Merja is a hugger, but these days 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.
After being badly burned in a farming accident in May, "I value hugs even more now," he said.
Through seven months of recovery, Merja has known pain, frustration and so much love.
"There was an incredible outpouring from a rather large community. It's been very moving," he said.
"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," he 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.
By the numbers
Merja's a math guy, a science guy. On the afternoon of May 9, his life came down to these numbers:
- 220 degrees, the temperature of the radiator fluid that scalded him.
- 10 pounds per square inch, the force of the fluid that hit him.
- 23 percent, how much of his body burned.
- 12 percent, his chance of survival based on his burns and age.
- 1 in 10 or 100 million, the odds of this accident happening as it did, by Merja's calculation.
'This is not good'
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 to himself. "Don't take that cap off."
He was standing by the right front tire of the truck when a radiator hose blew apart and 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 was doing a job by himself, one he'd done on the farm for 50 years without incident. His life would come down to whether he could find and use his cellphone.
He found the phone 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. The Salt Lake City burn unit workers told Merja his brother made the right decision to stop the burning.
What the burn center didn't tell him then was that given his age, 65, and percent of his body burned, he had very little chance of survival.
Some of the staff considered him a young 65. Merja was reasonably fit, didn't smoke and didn't drink and he was at a great burn center. So maybe, they thought, his odds were more like 50-50.
"I'm a safety nerd," Merja said. "Not asking for trouble is important. I was doing everything right. Or at least I wasn't doing anything stupid, and I still got nailed.
"A lot of things had to come together incorrectly. If the radiator hose had blown while I was driving, no big deal. If it happened while I was on the other side, no big deal. It happened when I was in exactly the wrong spot at exactly the wrong time — and I've never had a radiator hose blow off, either."
By 11 p.m. the night of his accident, Merja was in Salt Lake City's University of Utah Health Care-Intermountain Burn Center.
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."
"The surgeon told me I was going to decide how this turned out, but I didn't know what he meant," Merja said.
He didn't realize then how low his odds of survival were.
"It occurred to me at the scene of the accident that I might not survive. If I couldn't get help called, I could have been in trouble, but I did get help called, so yeah," he said. "That was the only time it occurred to me I might not make it."
During the accident, he had sunglasses over his glasses, which protected his vision despite a blast in the face. But he suffered burns to his face and inside his mouth, which 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.
"I looked it up. The device and process is something you can't unsee," he said.
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 to continue his care, the doctors' appointments she went to, the jobs she took over at home and all the rest. Just getting his wound dressings and shirts on takes help still.
Purple-red strips are clear on his legs. The grafts on his torso get sore.
"That's really my main pain issue right now," he said.
"Some of the grafts are still — I use the word angry but I'm seeing a therapist and she tells me not to use that word, but I don't remember the word she said to use," he said.
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.
On his right arm, Merja has a faint but visible line of burned and unburned skin. But his left arm is covered in purple splotches and kept under wraps in the compression shirt he has to wear for a year.
His torso is worse. Wounds cover his abdomen and wrap around his back. They look excruciating, but they've finally closed in the last six weeks. He covers them with ointment, silicon patches and the compression shirt.
In the summer, with only one layer of skin on his back, any vibration was enough to cause blisters, which would then break open. He's been open-wound free for about the last six weeks. After a summer with his back arched in a wrestler's bridge to avoid contact with the back of chairs, he can now sit leaning back into a recliner.
"I have a lot of friends who see me in town, and I look pretty normal," he said. "They say: 'You look great.' I said I look pretty good as long as I keep my shirt on. Steph says that's kinda been going on for a while."
A short list of the smartest people in the Sun River Valley would no doubt prominently feature Merja, who in the fall of 1971 was one of 13 Montanans at Stanford University.
He worked for Hewlett-Packard, hired despite having a bachelor's degree for a mechanical engineering position that required a doctorate. He's been an innovative farmer and is a former president of the Montana Grain Growers Association.
He founded and guides a student robotics team that's won world championships multiple times.
And these days, he speaks slowly and haltingly. He struggles to find the right words.
"Words are hard," he said.
"I didn't know how this would affect my brain. I didn't have a concussion or a brain injury, but 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.
"So I had very little ability to concentrate. The frontal lobe function wasn't there," he said. "I couldn't reason well. I couldn't take loud noises or a cacophony."
This summer, he couldn't contribute to the farming the way he always has. He couldn't ride in vehicles, or focus on the technology or even handle the paperwork. His body wasn't up to it. His brain wasn't up to it.
Instead, he watched his brothers, nieces and wife carry a larger burden of the farm work to make up for his absence. They worked hard and "came up shining," but it was hard for him to watch.
"It was just a feeling of worthlessness," he said. "I didn't feel like I was contributing very much."
Merja is, he said, a doer who can't do.
But his mental stamina is improving, though he still has trouble doing things that were easy before the injury.
"It's very frustrating," he said. "They said it will be 4-5 months before your brain is kind of OK so I joke that means I'll know the difference between turkey and ham at Thanksgiving."
Teaching through healing
Sun River's gym was lively on a recent evening as Merja moved from room to room checking in with students and answering questions.
In one room, middle school boys used Legos to build robots they pitted against each other in small battles. In another, students were running a 3D printer, assembling robot frames and using design software. In a third lab room, the oldest robotics team was testing a robot, logging outreach efforts and coding. Science Olympians were in the kitchen.
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 held a meeting with robotics kids. He wanted them to see he didn't look scary and he wanted to warn them his energy level was only 10-20 percent of usual.
At that meeting, Luke Ostberg, a Fairfield sophomore on the RedNek Robotics team, noticed Merja's new stammer and lower energy.
"With all the burns, any touch could injure him, so we had to get used to being careful," Luke said.
"He's a good leader and fun to be around. If it had been worse, if he had died, it would have been really sad," he said. "I don't think anybody could replace Chuck."
Luke decided it was "time to step up." He and teammates spent two weeks cleaning and organizing the robotics labs.
Merja's daughter says he's "one junk pile from a hoarder's episode," and the robotics rooms are full of trophies, tools, books, old robots, screws and all the little bits that might go into the next champion robot.
The robotics team members had their work cut out for them cleaning up from last season and getting ready for the season ahead. Merja's so impressed by what they accomplished, how they've adapted.
Merja can't handle noise as well as he once did, but "a couple dads and a mom are keeping the roof from flying off." They're buying the pizza he used to provide, too.
Luke's optimistic about the coming season, though it's the first time in seven years the team won't have a Fee brother on it. First was Carl and then came Winston, a freshman this year at M.I.T.
"You feel like you have to live up to those standards," he said.
Luke will be a co-captain, driver, designer, programmer and builder on this year's robot.
"A lot of the stuff, last year Winston taught me. Chuck has shown me more about wire management and how to be a good team together," Luke said. "He's helped us a lot with finances."
Luke, who has a background in building and problem solving from working with his grandpa on tractors, said a lot of students want to be in robotics but are too intimidated to come out for the team. Asking helps. Winning helps too.
"This team is good," he said.
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."
Luke's enthusiasm is infectious, Merja said.
"He's all in, and he brought a workforce with him," he said. "They don't listen to me very much. They listen to Luke, which is cool. It's their gig."
"He's just always supportive of people and wants to find ways to make science and technology available for everyone."
Watching the students, it's clear the importance Merja places on self-direction, experimentation and learning from teammates.
"I am about helping them to learn how to learn, not what to learn," he said.
The world robotics competitions give Merja 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."
Merja apologizes to the students sometimes when they have to wait a minute for him to get a word out.
"No big deal," they say.
"The kids are very patient, and most adults are patient, too," he said.
If a team with so many international championships can be said to have a weakness, it's interviews with the judges.
But this year, they have a new focus on that part of the challenge with Fairfield senior Adeline Hahn now on the team.
"I've been learning a variety of things. I've mostly stuck with my area of experience, writing and organizing but a little building and programming," she said.
"What haven't I learned from Chuck? With science fair he got me interested in the sciences," she said.
"He's just always supportive of people and wants to find ways to make science and technology available for everyone. He's always been really good about helping everyone."