Montana farmer, world-champ robotics coach beats the odds

Posted at 8:30 AM, Apr 15, 2019
and last updated 2019-04-15 10:30:45-04

SUN RIVER – Sun River farmer and robotics team coach Chuck Merja suffered a devastating accident in May of 2018.

Merja was driving a sprayer when he realized it was overheating. After getting out to investigate, disaster struck.

“The bottom radiator hose blew off of a pipe it was connected to and soaked me with super-heated ethylene glycol,” he recalled.

Two-hundred and twenty degrees burned across more than 20% of his body. Luckily, he was able to find his phone to call his wife and 911.

“I told my wife that she should find me, I was going to be OK, but it wasn’t going to be pretty,” said Merja.

His brother was the first to arrive on the scene, pouring water on him to reduce further burning.

Merja was rushed to the hospital and immediately flown to the University of Utah Burn Center in Salt Lake City.

“It was one of the most loving places I’ve ever been,” said Merja. “They saved my life and put me back together.”

He remained in the hospital for four weeks, and his recovery beat the odds.

“I had about a 12% chance by one measure of living,” Merja said. “And when I learned that I was in pretty good shape until somebody said that…I didn’t breathe for several breaths.”

Chuck Merja
Sun River farmer and robotics team coach Chuck Merja suffered a devastating accident in May of 2018. (courtesy photo).

After leaving the hospital, he spent two more weeks receiving outpatient treatment in Salt Lake City.

Merja knew his recovery would be difficult. What he did not count on was the toll it took on his brain. His nervous system was overloaded.

“Things like memory, patience, reasoning, memory and speaking go away,” he said. “I have to remember to breathe. I forget to breathe and then I start to stutter, and that’s a challenge that I didn’t have before the injury.”

He worried these challenges would keep him from his passion for science. For 14 years, he has coached area youth in robotics – very successfully.

“Three times world champions. No other team in the world can say that,” Merja said.

And coming back was not easy.

“I told the kids that I just couldn’t do very much, my patience wasn’t very good, my focus wasn’t good,” he said.

But the kids of his team stepped up to get ready for another year of work.

“We spent the whole entire summer cleaning the whole entire gym and getting everything ready,” said robotics team member Luke Ostberg.

“Chuck got back, and he was really surprised, and that really helped show him that on our own we can do well.”

Chuck Merja
Sun River farmer and robotics team coach Chuck Merja suffered a devastating accident in May of 2018. (MTN News photo)

“You could have eaten off the floor,” Merja said. “Well, maybe not, but it was spick-and-span clean.”

The team competes yearly with 6,000 other teams from around the world, building and programming robots to complete a series of tasks that differs each year.

“I enjoy about every aspect of it, I mean there’s programming, coding, driving, strategy,” Ostberg said.

Chuck and the team will again be at the FIRST robotics competition championship in Houston on April 17. It’s a goal the team could not have reached without their leader.

“Chuck is basically the backbone of the program,” said Ostberg.

And for Merja, the program is just as important to him as he is to it.

“I live to work with the kids,” he said. “I tell them that I might stutter or forget names and stuff like that,” Merja said. “And they say don’t worry about it, that’s not a problem for us. It’s been really cool how they’ve welcomed me back.”

Merja and his team now hope to be champions again.

To help with the Merja family’s outstanding medical expense, a benefit will be held April 28 at the Black Eagle Community Center. There will be auction items, and the robotics team will be doing demonstrations.

-Joe Huisinga reporting for MTN News