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Remembering Rita: Jackson woman to be recognized in Tournament of Roses parade

JACKSON — When Judy Cihak lost her animal-loving, Gator-driving, 31-year-old daughter Rita in August, she was overwhelmed by a mother’s grief. It’s a grief few can understand — filled with raw emotions of hurt, anger and sadness surrounding a life cut too short.

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“It’s kind of like being run over by a steamroller,” Judy said. “I miss her.”

While the exact cause of Rita’s death wasn’t determined, it’s believed she had an epileptic seizure. She was diagnosed with epilepsy at age 5½ and had taken medication up until age 12, when she decided she’d rather live without the side effects of being constantly tired and living in a fog.

For years, Rita managed through frequent pause seizures — sometimes up to 1,000 or more per day — and was her mother’s farmhand, mechanic and chore girl. They relied upon each other, especially since the loss of Judy’s husband, Rita’s father, nearly five years ago.

“We’ve farmed all our lives, and she was very helpful,” Judy said of her daughter. “She was very good with the animals, and, of course, we had a few extras because of her.”

For the past 24 years, Rita shared her animals with preschool children and nursing home residents, and while she was too shy to talk about the critters, Judy and Rita’s siblings were usually standing by to help.

“(The nursing home residents) thoroughly enjoyed seeing our calves, goats, ducks, geese and turkeys — we took all of that,” said Judy.

Today, she is left to take care of the menagerie, from a hypoallergenic curly-haired horse named “Gem,” to Donkey, a trio of rabbits, some goats and a multitude of ducks and geese. Then there are the other chores — hauling manure and moving bales. The family raises Black Angus cattle as well.

“We were comfortable farming together,” Judy said of Rita. “We were doing OK.”

Things changed on a mid-August day, however, when Rita had taken the Gator to the family’s second farm. Later, the Gator was found parked along the side of the road. People had driven past, but no one realized that Rita was on the other side, out of view. She’d laid there a while — too much time had elapsed.

Judy said they tried CPR, and Rita actually “pinked up” at the hospital, which led to a transfer to Sanford Medical Center in Sioux Falls, S.D.

While there, in a hospital waiting room, Judy and her brother began talking about organ donation. Her brother was following a story in Wisconsin at the time about a 12-year-old girl in need of a new heart.

Shortly thereafter, when doctors told Judy her daughter wouldn’t survive, someone suggested she consider donating Rita’s organs.

“I wasn’t sure which way to go with it,” Judy recalled.

Ultimately she chose to move ahead with the donation.

Rita died on a Saturday, and by Monday all of her usable organs had been harvested.

“Things had to move fast because the organs, they don’t have the shelf life that tissue and bone do,” Judy said.

To date, 60 individuals have benefited from Rita’s organs, although Judy hasn’t met any of them. She’s not ready to do that. She’s not sure she ever will be.

“It’s too soon,” she said.

Judy knows that one of Rita’s corneas went to a recipient in California, while the other went to a recipient in South Carolina. The donated skin and bone can be preserved and used for up to 10 years, so there may be more beneficiaries in the future.

“With people’s bodies rejecting metal pieces, for someone who’s had an arm or leg shattered, there’s hope for them,” Judy said. “There’s plenty of people out there that need organs.”

While Judy said donating her daughter’s organs is “bittersweet,” she knows a part of Rita is living on in others. Each year, an estimated 28,000 lives are saved through organ donation in the United States.

Now, Rita will be recognized for the life-giving gift her family made in choosing to donate her organs. She will be one of 81 organ donors featured in memorial floralgraph portraits on the Donate Life float in the 125th Tournament of Roses parade Jan. 1, in Pasadena, Calif. Her image will be applied to a foam board and outlined in a color-by-number pattern, as was explained to Judy through information from Donate Life.

“We sent pictures of Rita in, and they wanted a photo of her looking straightforward,” Judy said.

It may not sound like a difficult request, but Judy said her daughter was always the photographer — behind the camera lens instead of in front of it.

Rita’s floralgraph will be created with use of organic materials, from seeds and grains to spices and dried flowers. There is the potential that Judy and her family may get to apply some of the materials to the floralgraph while it’s in Sioux Falls.

In addition to the 81 floralgraphs, the Donate Life float will include 30 riders who have received organ, tissue or cornea donations, and another 12 individuals who were kidney donors.

Judy and another daughter, Krista, will be in the audience for the Tournament of Roses parade. Donate Life is sponsoring their trip, providing lodging and transportation.

Meanwhile, the Cihaks have been invited to attend a special reception today in Rita’s honor at Sanford Medical Center in Sioux Falls.

On Wednesday, Judy was pulling together some of Rita’s favorite things to take with her to Sioux Falls today: a fishing pole because Rita loved to fish; her pink tomboy tools (Rita took auto mechanics during her senior year of high school and loved to work on transmissions and other tasks at her brother-in-law’s repair shop); and a walking stick Rita had made.

“Really, she had a very full life,” Judy said.

There are more than 120,000 Americans currently on a waiting list for an organ transplant. Eighteen of them die each day from a lack of available organs. For more information on becoming an organ donor, visit

Julie Buntjer

Julie Buntjer joined the Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at The Farm Bleat

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