Mark Hare • Senior Editor • February 7, 2010
Kathy and Steven Mertz decided that if their baby was a girl, they would call her Christa, named for Christa McAuliffe, the teacher selected to ride the space shuttle Challenger in January 1986.
It was a beautiful name, Kathy Mertz says, and McAuliffe represented the high hopes they had for their little girl. After the shuttle exploded killing all onboard, McAuliffe "was a hero," Kathy says, so they stayed with the name.
Christa Mertz was born Jan. 31, 1986 (three days after the explosion), weighing barely four pounds. She had Down syndrome. She was as beautiful as her name, a "gift to everyone who knew her," says Dick Santo, her uncle.
Christa Mertz, 23, died Jan. 5 of complications from the H1N1 flu.
She was always very alert and responsive, eager to talk to people and full of energy. Her big brothers, Scott and Andy, were "her greatest gifts," Kathy says. They were both hockey players and they taught her the game. "They toughened her up," says Kathy, who allows that she didn't know until Christa's funeral that they used to throw pucks at her in their Rochester back yard to teach her to dodge them. "She was a daredevil," Kathy says, "She had a need for speed."
She was a Special Olympian who excelled at bowling, swimming and hockey. She played, and loved, Challenger Baseball, for children and young adults with disabilities.
And she brought to everything an innocence that reminded everyone she met how good life can be, if we just let it be.
When she was eight, her doctors discovered that Christa was born with just one kidney and that it was failing. Soon she was on dialysis for 12 hours every night; her mom and dad, and grandmother, Edith Wilson, were all trained to hook her up, but the treatment was a family project. "She would brush her teeth and get into her pajamas at 8," Kathy says, "and Andy and Scott would be there trading hockey cards or whatever. She was never left alone."
While she was ill, she was awarded a wish from the Make a Wish Foundation; she wanted to go to the Nickelodeon Network to get "slimed" with the sugary, gooey green stuff contestants on the network's game shows were regularly doused with. She got her wish, and the family got great photos.
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