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Laura Seitz, Deseret News
Chris Mart, his wife Sally and their son Tyler watch a volleyball match between some of the other Mart children in Sandy on Thursday, Oct. 16, 2014.
There are days we are just drained, mostly from the emotional stuff. There always seems to be enough energy to get things done. We get help from the Lord. It’s a three-way partnership. The two of us and the Lord. We rely on him and work ourselves to death, and he enlarges our capacity. —Sally Mart

AUTHOR'S NOTE: Sally Mart finally succumbed to cancer, passing away early on the morning of Aug. 7. "She had (cancer) for 14 years and had survived with miracle after miracle," says neighbor and close friend Kathleen Imbler. "We assumed she would keep plugging away, but it finally took her. She was very at peace about it all. She always said, 'I'm not in charge; The Lord is in charge and He knows what he's doing, and I'm good with that.' She was a remarkable woman and she will be missed."

This is the story of a man and a woman who couldn’t have children of their own, so they adopted them — and kept on adopting. Seventeen in all, and that doesn’t count the four they took in temporarily.

This is the story of Chris and Sally Mart, who turned their home into Ellis Island, taking “your tired, your poor … the homeless, tempest-tossed,” and gave them a home, lifting their lamp beside an open door. The children they took into their homes and hearts — some from abroad, others from around the U.S. — are all physically and/or emotionally challenged. They came with wheelchairs and missing limbs and diseases and syndromes and behavioral problems and often the baggage of birth parents or a poor home environment or both.

This is the story of two bright, educated people — he is a cardiologist and she has a degree in microbiology — who could have been wealthy and free and living the high life but instead devoted their lives to children at the expense of everything the rest of us do — TV, home Internet, vacations, dates on the town. There is no free time. Their lives are filled with children 24/7. Well, except for the 14 dogs and cats they rescued that otherwise would have been euthanized.

“I appreciate the underdog — those who are being mistreated or abandoned; those who need somebody to step up to the plate and do something about it,” Sally says, weeping.

She is sitting at the kitchen table in her home in an eastside Sandy neighborhood. She talks for two hours while four of her children listen from the family room, anchored to wheelchairs and couches: “When I face the Savior someday I want to be able to say I made a difference."

Who knows when that day might come. Sally has cancer — for the second time.

For the second time, she is undergoing chemotherapy. For the second time she has shaved her head. Chris did the honors while their children watched. She turned it into an object lesson for family home evening, a weekly occurrence in Mormon households in which the family gathers for activities and a spiritual message.

Sally read Samuel 16:7, in which the Lord chooses David, the most unlikely of Jesse’s sons, to be king, explaining, “ … for the Lord seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart.”

Sally, who is 62, has stage 4 breast cancer (there are only four stages). About 60 percent of stage 4 patients will survive five years. Sally concedes that her prognosis “is probably not that great. But I’m not going to waste my energy over things over which I have no control. Every day is a precious gift. My job is to use every day, not to curl up in bed moaning. I’ve got to take care of my kids.”

This is no small feat. The children’s care would be a monumental task under normal circumstances, but the Mart children present a mix of medical challenges: spina bifida, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, blindness, deafness, autism, limb deformities, fetal alcohol syndrome, pyromania, kleptomania, bipolar disorder, conduct disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, attention deficit disorder, mood disorder, depressive disorder, reactive attachment disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, post traumatic stress disorder, learning disabilities, schizophrenia, arthrogryposis (a congenital condition that restricts the motion of the joints), plus several severe brain abnormalities — microcephaly (small brain), hydrocephaly (fluid on the brain), lissencephaly (smooth brain) and schizencephaly (splits and clefts of the brain).

Here is roll call in the Mart family:

Nicholas, 27, is married, attends college and holds down a job.

Nathan, 22, just moved out of the house and has a job.

Ashley, 21, requires total care and will always live at home.

Alyson, 19, graduated from high school and is studying to earn a real estate license.

Erica, 19, will soon apply to serve a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Dylan, 18, graduated from high school and will attend vocational school.

Emily, 17, is a high school senior from Afghanistan who wants to be a cosmetologist.

Sarah, 17, is wheelchair-bound with cerebral palsy and will always live at home.

Katie, 16, likes wheelchair sports and is described as sociable, spunky and bright.

Tyler, 16, is from El Salvador and is considered a computer whiz. He participates in church activities.

Austin, 16, will require life-long total care from the Marts. He is described as “a delight, a great personality with a sense of humor.”

Aaron , 15, is a total-care child from Taiwan who will always live at home. “Our Chinese teddy bear,” Sally calls him.

Jacob, 13, was born in Russia and loves Scouting, sports and reading.

Logan, 11, is described by Sally this way: “I hate to use this term, but she is the most normal. She is quite bright and opinionated.” She has vision issues that have improved dramatically. She loves dance and sports and is outgoing and social.

The Marts have another child who is unable to live at home because of “extreme, dangerous behaviors.”

Two other children died after the Marts adopted them. One was Joshua, a 20-month-old boy from Pennsylvania with Down syndrome and cardio-pulmonary problems who lived with the Marts for 10 months.

“If we had had him one day it would have been worth it,” says Sally. “He’s still very much part of our family. He’s physically present.”

The other child was Mallory, who came to the Marts from Vietnam when she was 9 months old. She had cerebral palsy and schizencephaly. She was originally adopted by another couple that decided they simply couldn’t provide the care she required. She lived with the Marts for seven years and then died suddenly.

“It was quite a loss,” Sally says. “She was buried near our church so we can visit.”

Mormons practice a sealing ordinance in their temples that they believe binds families eternally. The Marts have had all 17 children sealed to them.

(For the record, the Marts planned to adopt two other children, but they were reclaimed by their birth parents. They also had two foster children, but eventually elected not to adopt them.)

“Chris and Sally Mart are beyond incredible,” says friend Darrell Back. “They have given their lives to giving a very good life to many handicapped children.”

“I love the Marts,” says John Zarbock, their former LDS bishop. “They are an inspiration to us all.”

Twelve children live at home now and as many as 15 have lived there at once. For obvious reasons, the children require constant attention. Six of the teenagers are in diapers and two must be fed through G tubes. Five children need help just to get dressed. Four will always live with the Marts. Ten of them have regular doctor appointments.

Chris, who works 60 hours a week, often in 12-hour shifts, comes home from the hospital and immediately tends to the children's needs alongside Sally, who undertakes most of the chores at home. They hire no outside help, providing all the caregiving themselves — laundry, cleaning the house, dealing with insurance companies, making appointments, attending school meetings, grocery shopping, taking children to their many doctor appointments or visiting them in the hospital (there is rarely a time when at least one of them is not in the hospital).

There are diapers and colostomy bags to change and wheelchairs to get children in and out of and nightly baths to give and children to be carried up and down the stairs of the family’s two-story home. There are medicines to be dispensed, sometimes 4-5 pills for a single child. There are children to be awakened and prepared for school each morning. Just getting the family to church a few blocks away is a major undertaking, requiring two large vehicles to transport children and wheelchairs. And then there are those pets to feed.

Friends marvel at it all.

“The house is always put together,” says Kirsten Richards, one of Sally’s close friends. “The dishes are always done, the laundry folded, and no one is coming in to help. The kids are bathed every day and they don’t miss their doctor and dental appointments. (Chris and Sally) made this commitment and they are going to stick with it.”

“Some people wonder how they meet the needs of all those children, especially with so many problems,” says Natalie Morton, another family friend. “But until you see the effort and hard work you have no idea. And where would these kids be without the Marts? Most wouldn’t have homes.”

Many of the children were given up simply because the parents couldn’t care for them. Others were simply abandoned. One of the children was treated like a family pet by his birth family, eating scraps off the floor of a rural hut: “They’d throw him a tortilla occasionally,” says Sally.

Says Chris, “We’ve tried to help in these situations where not a lot of people are raising their hands saying they’d help. Many (of the kids) are hard to place. Sally and I have known for a long time that people are people. It doesn’t matter if they can’t walk or talk, they’re still people. They still need to be loved and cared for. Every child deserves a family and a home.”

The Marts had no such plans when they started their life together. They prepared for careers and children of their own. Sally was born and raised in Memphis, Tennessee. She studied microbiology and nuclear medicine at the University of Memphis. She joined the LDS Church while attending school there. Chris, raised in Bisbee, Arizona, converted to the Mormon faith at 16 and served a mission in South Dakota.

Chris and Sally met in Arkansas, where they had moved to continue their schooling. She completed her studies in nuclear medicine and he completed medical school at the University of Arkansas. Then came a series of moves to accommodate Chris’ medical studies, including a three-pediatric residency at Penn State and a three-year pediatric cardiology fellowship at Syracuse University. He accepted a job offer from the Penn State Medical Center as an attending physician, and 10 years later he accepted a job in Salt Lake City. Mart, 59, is a professor of pediatrics at the University of Utah who is a staff pediatric cardiologist at Primary Children’s Hospital caring for children with heart problems.

After Sally had eight miscarriages, the Marts considered adoption even while they were financially strapped students, but decided to wait. After Chris finished medical school, the Marts were told that an unmarried teenage girl in their Mormon ward was pregnant and asked if they would adopt her child. That was the first of many adoptions. They adopted their second child a year later.

Both adoptions were completed through LDS Social Services, which limited adoptions to two children at the time, so the Marts turned elsewhere for more children. While living in New York, they were approached by county officials about adopting medical-needs children. As they began adopting more and more children, they were getting more and more calls, two to three week, with offers of children.

“If we had taken every child who was offered, we would have had — I’m not lying — 70 children,” says Sally.

Soon they were seeking medically challenged children.

“I felt an inner drive,” says Sally. “It was a calling from God. I don’t say that lightly.”

Says Chris, “We would have adopted ‘normal’ children, but those opportunities came up.

Then Sally interjects: “If I had a choice, I’d have taken the kids we’ve had.”

The work of caring for those children is physically and emotionally draining, especially for a woman with stage 4 cancer on a chemotherapy regimen. For that reason, Richards has helped organize a fundraiser to install an elevator in the Mart home so teenage children don’t have to be carried up the stairs (donations can be made to the Marts at any Wells Fargo Bank under the Mart family donation account or through this online campaign).

Sally, who competed in volleyball, track and basketball at the University of Memphis, has always been physically capable, but the cancer and the chemo have created new limitations: “There are things I used to do, but can’t do now,” she says.

Sally was first diagnosed with stage 3c breast cancer in October 2001. She underwent a mastectomy and endured months of chemo and radiation therapy. The cancer went in remission. In January 2013, she tripped over one of her children and broke her arm. During the evaluation of the injury, a tumor was discovered in her arm — and then many other places in her body.

“When this cancer came back, I was distraught,” says Richards. “Sally looked right at me and said, ‘Don’t you think God knows what I do every day and is aware of all these children and what I do for them? If he has something more important for me to do and wants to take me, then I’m all for it.’ She is at total peace. It was life-changing for me. It changed my outlook on everything.”

Sally copes with her illness with dark humor. She has named the major tumors. She called a tumor in her breast Egbert (“We blew him up”) and a tumor in her arm Eunice (“She died of radiation”). The tumor in her liver is Ethel (once thought dead but now making a comeback. “Ethel won’t leave me alone and now she has invited her whole family over for a big reunion,” says Sally, laughing. “It’s funny.”). There are too many tumors to name now.

Says Zarbock, “Sally and Job could be locker partners. She has been through many trials.”

Sally has been on medication since her first bout with cancer a dozen years ago, which accounts for the restless nights. She has 50-60 hot flashes in a 24-hour period, which keep her awake most of the night. She sleeps a total of one to three hours.

“I prayed that the Lord would take away the hot flashes so I could sleep,” she says. “Instead, he blessed me with a miracle. I am able to function at a high level on three hours of sleep. I have energy. I feel great. It’s a great blessing because it gives me all this time during the night to get lots of things done.”

On and off throughout the night, between catnaps, she pays bills, does laundry, writes in her journal and cleans the bathroom. She starts her day at 3:30 a.m.

“We don’t live a conventional lifestyle,” she says. “Most wouldn’t touch it with a 10-foot pole.”

Friends and acquaintances frequently mention Sally’s deep empathetic streak for others, despite her own challenges, or perhaps because of them. When Richards was sick, Sally showed up with dinner. She assists organizations in finding homes for children and homeless animals. She has 10 cats and dogs of her own (four more died) that she rescued from shelters (the family living room has been fenced in and turned over to the cats). When a friend lost his job, the Mart children delivered groceries to the home, ringing the doorbell and running.

“I caught them running from the door one evening or I never would have known,” says the friend. “The Marts have all those challenges and they’re thinking of other people.”

Richards once took her children to the Marts’ home hoping to help. As she tells it, “There were kids in wheelchairs and kids with hands and feet missing and kids who can’t talk or talk correctly, and kids on the floor, and my kids stood back a little – my younger boy wouldn’t come in. But it didn’t take long for them to realize they’re just kids. They played together. We went in there thinking we could serve this family and we came away being served, enhanced and uplifted. My whole family felt it. There’s just this feeling of peace, love and greatness there.”

It is a rare morning that Chris is home and this morning is one of them. He is sitting at the kitchen table with one of the children in his lap. Sally is on other side of the table alternately providing the narrative of their lives and dabbing at tears: “The only reason we are able to do what we do is because of Sally’s great talents and abilities,” says Chris.

He is one of many who mention Sally’s intelligence and keen memory, and this becomes apparent as she recites phone numbers — landline and/or cellphone — of her many acquaintances, as well as the dates of children’s birthdays and most of their Social Security numbers, as well as keep a mental calendar of all the family doctor appointments.

“There are days we are just drained, mostly from the emotional stuff," Sally says. "There always seems to be enough energy to get things done. We get help from the Lord. It’s a three-way partnership. The two of us and the Lord. We rely on him and work ourselves to death, and he enlarges our capacity.”

The entryway to the family home is virtually a museum of artwork depicting scenes of Jesus Christ with children, along with photos of family and Mormon temples. These are the pillars of their lives. Despite their many responsibilities, Chris has managed to serve as a bishop, and Scoutmaster, and Sally has served several times as the Young Women president at stake and ward levels and has taught early morning seminary.

They don’t watch TV and they don’t have Internet in the home. Sally’s one indulgence is volleyball and Chris’s is swimming. She organized an informal rec league in 2004 that still plays 2-3 nights a week years, and she has played on through cancer and chemo: “I’ll have to be dead not to do that,” she says.

Because of the special needs of their children and their determination to provide the caregiving themselves, one of the Marts is almost always home. Vacations are “out of the question.” Date nights are pretty much out, too. Chris and Sally did manage to get away together one time to compete in the Huntsman Senior Games in St. George. They were gone one night. They left at 2 a.m. to minimize their absence.

“We’ll never go on a cruise or to Hawaii, but we have no regrets,” says Sally. “Dates are going to the hospital or home teaching together. That’s very refreshing for us; that suffices.”

Says Chris: “I’ve wondered what we would have done with our lives if we had not adopted all these children. I like to do activities and go places as much as the next person. I’d like to lie on a beach, but it’s very transient. It’s relaxing for a while, but it doesn’t really accomplish anything. I would rather have done what we’ve done. What we’ve done is important.”

Email: drob@deseretnews.com