Giving the gift of life—after death

Young woman will be remembered for her organ donation at the Rose Parade 2012

by John Shultz
Special to The Leaven

Kelli Smith never met Alicia Sabaugh.

She didn’t follow Alicia’s progression from promising grade schooler at Curé of Ars in Leawood to promising law student at UMKC. She didn’t participate in the lively debates Alicia helped spark in her family home. And she wasn’t there the challenging night Alicia’s parents agreed to fulfill their daughter’s wish to not let her organs go to waste.

But Smith is forever grateful to Alicia. Her life was extended thanks to the gift of Alicia’s heart — a perfect match for Smith. And Smith cherishes every available opportunity to show her gratitude to Alicia.

Earlier in December, Smith was on hand at Curé of Ars Church, helping to put the finishing touches on a “floragraph” portrait of Alicia — a picture made entirely of natural products, like seeds and spices — that will be displayed on the Donate Life float at the 2012 Rose Parade Jan. 2 in Pasadena, Calif.

What would the Grain Valley, Mo., resident and mother of four like to tell Alicia?

“I would tell her I love her,” Smith said. “I don’t even know her and I love her and thank her, and I will do everything in my power to honor this gift. . . . I thank the family for letting me participate. I can’t put into words how gracious and welcoming they were.”

If Smith is appreciative of the opportunity, Alicia’s family is just as thankful that friends, family, supporters, and recipients continue to honor Alicia’s memory. And they’re thrilled that the Midwest Transplant Network asked to include Alicia on the Rose Parade float.

“This is just such an honor,” said Sue Sabaugh, Alicia’s mother. “One of the things you worry about as a mother when you lose a child is that people will forget her. You pray that people will always remember Alicia. And through organ donation, and events like this, you know Alicia’s memory will go on and on.

“There’s a domino effect. The recipients are grateful, the families are grateful. Donation takes a horrible tragedy and makes some good come of it.”

The tragedy that took Alicia from her family came as they all do: suddenly.

Alicia, 27, was on her way home to the Country Club Plaza from visiting her family in Leawood on a Saturday night in January 2009 when she got into an accident on Interstate 435.

She called her parents, and said she thought she was OK.

But, her family learned later, she was trapped in her car. And while her father, Sam Sabaugh, was en route to the scene, her vehicle was struck by an elderly motorist and Alicia was thrown from the car.

A neurosurgeon at Research Medical Center in Kansas City, Mo., told her family that she had suffered a severe head injury, and that her situation was grave, Sam recalled.

“I remembered that about three months before the accident, she and I were watching the six o’clock news,” said Sam, “and there was a segment on about organ donation.

“They actually showed a kidney being received by somebody, and it started functioning immediately. That impressed her, and she looked over at me and said, ‘Hey, Dad, if anything ever happens to me, don’t you bury my organs with me.’”

“We made a deal to that effect. So when they told us her condition was terminal, we instructed them to donate her organs. This was really Alicia’s decision,” he said.

Since then, the Sabaughs have been in touch with multiple recipients of Alicia’s last gift, like Smith. They’ve also met in person with the recipient of Alicia’s liver and spoken with a kidney recipient. They’ve also developed a close relationship with the Midwest Transplant Network.

That Alicia would be drawn to favor organ donation speaks to her character, said Sam.

“My daughter was always very giving,” he said. “We’ve been blessed to have a lot of good things happen in our life. And she was the one who was always interested in helping someone who was less privileged.”

Alicia studied math and sociology during her undergrad years at KU and developed a keen interest in, and talent for, art. She had just completed her first semester of law school at the time of the wreck.

“I’m fairly certain she would have practiced law that was more social-driven, more centered around social issues, not business or criminal law,” Sam said. “She always wanted to make a difference.

“Little did she know that she’d be making such a difference in a lot of people’s lives — not just helping them with her organs, but in creating more awareness for organ donation.”

The Donate Life Rose Parade float, dubbed “. . . One More Day,” seeks to do just that. The float features the portraits of 72 organ donors, in floragraph form, made up to resemble the faces of multiple clocks.

The float’s organizers create the portraits based on photos supplied by the donors’ families, then ship the floragraphs to the families for the final touches.

Dozens attended Alicia’s event at Curé on Dec. 10, a crowd made up of some family and close friends and a lot of supporters. The finishing touches on Alicia’s floragraph came from grandmother Phyllis Malone. (“We think Alicia inherited her artistic talent from her grandmother,” said Sam.)

The family credits their strong personal support system — including those who turned out at the December event — with helping them through the trying times.

Msgr. Charles McGlinn, pastor of Curé of Ars, has known the family for years, and anointed Alicia shortly before she died.

“This has been such a huge hurdle for them,” he said. “I still remember what a terrible shock it was. But I also will always remember what a wonderful response there was from their friends, most of whom were there that night. They just really all rallied around them and have been a real source of strength for them.”

“Everybody knows about organ transplants, but nobody thinks about it,” he added. “This event can really raise some consciousness. And it’s wonderful for the family.”

The Sabaughs will travel to Pasadena as guests of the Midwest Transplant Network. Sue and Sam, along with adult sons — Jason, who lives in Santa Monica, Calif., and Sam, who attends the University of Arizona — will attend the parade and all of the related organized events, including the bowl game.

Alicia attended — and thoroughly enjoyed — the parade when she went years ago while her brother attended USC.

“She loved it,” Sue said. “We were just all marveling at how gorgeous the floats were and the pageantry of the event. That she’d now be honored in this way is really amazing.”

Sue, for her part, said she’s looking forward to the parade and was impressed with the floragraph’s likeness. But then, any image of Alicia has a lot of qualities to capture.

“I miss her sense of humor and I miss my daughter — so many wonderful qualities that she had,” said Sue. “There are so many things we wish she could be a part of.

“Life goes on, and you learn you just have to truly treasure every day, because you don’t know what will happen tomorrow.”

Smith, who had been given mere months to live before receiving the gift of Alicia’s heart, said she’ll be unable to attend the parade, but “will be absolutely watching. . . . It’s really hard to put into words. How do you ever thank somebody?”

Sam says Alicia wouldn’t need the thanks.

“As a father, I’m proud to do this,” he said. “It filled us with a lot of genuine pride that our daughter was selected to have her picture on the float. I’m sure she’s somewhere looking over us and is thrilled that we did exactly what she asked us to do.”

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