I don’t remember how I first became aware of organ donation. My dim recollection seems to tell me my awareness began with a program at my high school. I do remember signing up to be an organ donor the first time I had a chance — which happened to be when I needed to go to the Ellsworth branch of the Bureau of Motor Vehicles to get my first driver’s license.

April is Donate Life Month across the United States. To date, some 52 percent of Maine motorists have signed up as potential organ donors, which is a pretty good indication of how mainstream the idea has become. But we still seek to sign up more people, and to make it easier.

I spend a lot of my time talking about safe driving. At every mill I drive by, I see a sign that reminds workers that “Safety Is No Accident.” Most public buildings — especially newer ones — are equipped with elevators that can accommodate gurneys, and many public spaces have defibrillators mounted in conspicuous places.

In many respects, we live in a pretty safe world. And yet, things go wrong.

In chronic care wards across the country, there await a great many people who are good candidates for replacement organs — whether they be kidneys, livers, hearts, corneas, lungs or other organs. With donated replacement organs, these patients can live normal, productive lives.

I met an attorney a few years ago who didn’t know me well, and asked about the types of priorities I had emphasized as secretary of state. His eyes burned with interest when I mentioned organ donation. As we chatted, he revealed he was the beneficiary of a heart transplant.

I have talked with several people who are recipients of the gift of life, and also with the families of donors. All relate what a transformative experience it was, and at so many levels.

My former colleague, now-retired Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, lost his only child to a car crash caused by a drunk driver. His adult daughter, Rachel, was an organ donor. Mark described to me the depths he sunk to in anger and grief at her loss, but said receiving letters from the recipients of her gift lifted him up.

One recipient, a young girl who escaped a bedridden state to take horseback riding lessons after receiving Rachel’s heart, wrote to Mark and his wife Nancy in gratitude, prompting him to reflect:

“Rachel had a heart so big it could hold every living thing within miles, and now that unstoppable force was giving life to another young girl. Reading and re-reading this letter began to melt the ice that had frozen over my own heart. Rachel’s donation of life was beginning to give me my life back. Rachel was our only child and we would never have her back – but her gift helped us come back to living.”

As chief motor vehicle administrator for the state of Maine, I can’t administer much in the way of spiritual healing or moving on from grief. All I can do is build a system I hope no one ever has to use, and then make sure it works when their wishes must be made manifest in making the gift of life.

You can learn more at our website, which makes it easy to register at any time; you no longer have to wait until you renew a driver’s license or have other business at a motor vehicle branch office to sign up.

You can make a lifetime’s difference.

You just have to make the decision.

Matthew Dunlap is Maine’s secretary of state. For more information about the organ donor registry, visit the Donate Life website via the Maine Department of the Secretary of State homepage.

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