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Donating A Life

December 2, 2013, 10:20 PM by Brady Mallory

Donating A Life

Every year, it is hard to overlook how the Rose Parade touches millions of people.  The spectacular floats, the large crowds and pep bands alone make the event a must-see in Pasadena, California.  The event, broadcast on several stations, is a long way from a farm near Jackson, Minnesota.  If you look close enough, you can find a connection.

"Hi Donkey" Judy Cihak said, as a donkey and horse, named Jem, approached her. 

Both of these statuesque creatures, along with roosters, geese and some goats, are just a few faces you will find on Cihak's land.  Her daughter, Rita, a huge animal lover, could not say no to an animal in need of a home.

Brady Mallory: Showing me around, having her animals close.  Is that comforting?
Cihak: Yes. Yeah.  As you can see, they're very happy here.  All the animals.

Cihak has done her best to keep them that way after life changed in August.   At just 31 years old, Rita had an epileptic seizure and died. 

"I miss my daughter," Cihak said, taking a moment to pause, as tears filled her eyes.

The woman who had a knack for hard work, photography and helping anyone she could has continued making a difference.  After Rita died, Cihak made the decision to donate her daughter's organs, tissue and eyes.  It was not something she had talked about with Rita.

"She was too busy living.  No, we never discussed organ donation of any sort.  As her life ended suddenly, we were asked if we were interested, and we had to think about it for a while.  Different people talked to us about different people who had organ transplants and how much these people appreciated the gift of life, and I decided to do it," Cihak said.

That decision gave second chances to more than 60 people.  The process has been an education for Rita's family. They have learned that even though it is not an easy choice, becoming a donor is one of the most important gestures you can make.

"If you want to do it, get it on your license if you have one," Krista Knakmuhs, Rita's sister, said.

Rita's gifts of life caught the attention of the South Dakota Lions Eye & Tissue Bank.  That organization is sending Rita's mom and sister to the Rose Parade.  Both women will be a part of the Donate Life Rose Parade Float.  Since 2004, this float has served as a memorial to organ and tissue donors.  It is also a platform for donor families, living donors and transplant recipients to inspire the world to save and heal those in need through the gift of life.  Rita's image will be made into a floragraph and used on the float along with other donors, living donors and recipients from across the United States.

"I think it's awesome for her.  A good, a good celebration of her life.  Would she like to be out in front of everybody?  Absolutely not.  That's not her thing.  She was quiet.  She was not one to be the center of attention.  In that aspect, would she like that?  No, but in her honor, I think it's great," Knakmuhs said.

Rita was more of a tough girl - a trait she learned throughout her whole life, as she battled epilepsy.

"Life was not easy.  School was tough because kids picked on her because of her epilepsy," Cihak said.

"I think that's how come she had such a personality.  Because it was an obstacle.  She wasn't going to let it beat her down.  She did not run around saying she had epilepsy.  So that's why kids were tougher because they didn't know," Knakmuhs said.

Rita's family said that is also why she showed a kindness to the animals nobody else wanted.  Cihak says you can tell many of the animals also miss Rita. 

This will mark the first time the South Dakota Lions Eye & Tissue Bank is able to honor one of its donors.  One of its partners, a Montana company called Bacterin, made this possible.

The trip west will be bittersweet for this mother and daughter.  They will use this journey to the Rose Parade to celebrate Rita's life.  As millions of people watch at home, no one will be able to overlook how many lives one woman touched.

"I'd love to have her back, in a heartbeat.  That's not a possibility," Knakmuhs said, pausing to wipe her eyes.  "For someone else to live on. That second chance."

Knakmuhs said she would like to meet the people who Rita helped.  Cihak is not sure at this point, but is incredibly proud of her daughter.

"Rita was gone, at least she's helping somebody.  Her body parts are giving people a new chance at life," Cihak said.

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