Leawood woman remembered on Donate Life float in Rose Parade

That’s Alicia Sabaugh, her blue eyes and brown hair, her soft smile. Daughter. Sister. Organ donor.

Sabaugh’s portrait in flowers and other organic materials — a “floragraph” — will be displayed on the Donate Life float in the Rose Parade on Jan. 2 in Pasadena, Calif.

On Saturday, Sabaugh’s parents and her two brothers, a host of other family members and friends, and the recipient of her donated heart gathered at Cure of Ars Catholic Church in Leawood to help put the finishing touches on the portrait. Sabaugh is among 72 organ donors to be honored on the float.

“I just think it’s beautiful,” said Sabaugh’s mother, Sue, as she and family members dabbed a paint brush with glue and tiny seeds, filling in Sabaugh’s eyebrows on the floragraph.

Parade volunteers in California crafted the portrait, leaving the last touches for the family to complete. It will be shipped back to California. The floragraphs will adorn six giant timepieces, a portrait for each hour on the clocks. The float is titled “One More Day.”

Sabaugh’s donor story, said her father, Sam, began one evening when the two were watching a TV news program, and a segment came on about organ transplants. There was video of a kidney transplant that showed the kidney functioning almost immediately.

“Alicia said, ‘Wow, that’s really neat. Dad, if something ever happens to me, don’t you bury these organs with me.’ ”

“And I said, ‘I’ll make you a deal. If something happens to me, you do the same for me.’ ”

Three months later, early in January 2009, the 27-year-old Sabaugh had visited her parents at their Leawood home and headed back to her apartment on the Country Club Plaza. Sam got a call not long after she had left.

“I’ve had an accident,” she told him, on Interstate 435 near Holmes Road.

She was OK, she thought, but she was trapped in her car. Before help could arrive, while Sam was on the way, an elderly motorist slammed into Sabaugh, throwing her from the car.

“I was not some big advocate of organ donation,” Sam said, “but on the night of her accident at Research hospital, when the doctor told us the situation was grave, that she wasn’t going to make it, I instantly recalled our conversation.”

Very little time had elapsed between saying goodnight to their daughter and receiving this unbearable news at the hospital. The enormity of it couldn’t be understood so quickly, Sue said.

“It’s unfolding in front of your eyes and you’re numb,” she said. “But at the same time we were united immediately. We knew Alicia wanted to be an organ donor. It was a gift in a way, because she had voiced her wishes.”

A gift in many ways: Sabaugh’s heart, kidneys, lungs, pancreas and liver were donated, saving six lives, said Erin Gregory of the Midwest Transplant Network. Her corneas also were donated.

The family, including Sabaugh’s brothers, Jason, 27, of Santa Monica, Calif., and Sam, 23, a college student, will be guests at the parade, the Rose Bowl game and other events. They are looking forward to meeting other families of organ donors and sharing memories of their loved ones.

Kelli Smith, a mother of four from Grain Valley, attended Saturday’s floragraph reception, getting a long hug from Sue when she arrived.

Smith had waited several months in 2008, her condition worsening every day, until she heard the words, “How would you like to get your heart today?” from the hospital staff on Jan. 5, 2009.

She was ecstatic, of course, but she quickly asked for a moment to stop and pray.

“I knew out there somebody’s life had been changed forever,” she said. “Now just look at how many lives Alicia saved.”

Sabaugh attended Cure of Ars Catholic School and graduated from Blue Valley North High School. She earned math and sociology degrees from the University of Kansas, and at the time of the accident she had finished her first semester of law school at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

“She was artistic, yet she was technical,” her father, Sam, said. “She was no-nonsense and free-wheeling.”

Sabaugh had an intense interest in current events and dug deep into issues, her parents said. She also made them laugh with jokes and imitations. Her artwork was displayed in their house.

Although she and Sam disagreed often, including on hot-button issues of politics and religion, they were great friends, Sam said.

“The family would have discussions during dinner, and at the end there would be the two of us, Alicia and I,” he said. “She wouldn’t walk away from an argument.”

Sam said he wasn’t sure how Sabaugh ultimately would have used her law degree, but her interest in social issues would have come into play.

“She was an advocate for the underdog,” he said.

Which, no doubt, is why she told him her wishes that evening while they were watching TV.

“Losing a child, you worry people will forget her,” Sue said. “We will never forget her, what a wonderful person she was. Treasure each day and love your family. You don’t know what tomorrow brings.”