April is Donate Life Month, so if you don’t know about the science and legal landscape of organ donation, now is a great time to learn about it. Really — it’s not just another bureaucrat’s appeal to participate in a program.

Organ donation is something I’ve always agreed with and thought important. When I got my first driver’s license at the tender age of 16, I had no problem affixing a decal to the back of my credential proclaiming my wishes as an organ donor, a pledge I’ve renewed plenty of times in the succeeding years.

For most of my life, however, including my first few years as secretary of state, the true scope of the importance of organ donation escaped me. Spreadsheets, timelines and flowcharts of administrative duties sometimes hide the emotional explosiveness of what people go through in times of tragedy.

I was attending a regular conference of secretaries of state in Michigan some years back, and I heard the story of then-Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie’s loss of his only child — his adult daughter, Rachel — to a crash caused by a drunk driver.

Mark and his wife, Nancy, got notice that Rachel had been in a terrible crash, and they rushed to the hospital, where the news was grim: She wasn’t going to make it. The doctors took them into a room to discuss the situation, and brought in folks from the Donate Life network.

The volunteers and staff gently walked Rachel’s family through the situation, difficult as it was to understand and process. Finally, after a long silence, one of the volunteers asked them what their wishes were. “Rachel’s waiting,” they said. Nancy and Mark made the hard decision to go forward with the donation.

A week after her death, Rachel’s new driver’s license arrived in the mail. In red letters across the front of the license, it was marked DONOR, indicating her choice to give the gift of life.

As time passed, a packet of letters arrived from the recipients of Rachel’s gifts. Among the many grateful messages, one in particular struck me: that from a young lady who had been an animal lover, but had been bedridden because of a heart condition. Rachel’s gift allowed her to not only live her life normally, but to live her dream of taking horseback riding lessons.

Later, Mark wrote of this letter: “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.”

By the time Mark finished his story, there was scarcely a dry eye in the house. Since we first took his story and many more like it to heart, we’ve worked to improve our procedures, and

gone through our administrative processes and customer interfaces to improve them. Our goal is to make it easier for individuals and their families to prepare for the unthinkable — and to make those plans count.

Since I first worked with Mark Ritchie, I’ve had occasion to talk about organ donation with many recipients and families of donors. All the sentiments I’ve been graced with are similar, if not identical, to those Secretary Ritchie expressed more than 11 years after he lost his only child. These decisions help people continue without the loved one they lost.

This month, if you haven’t registered as an organ donor, think about it. Our online tool at http://www.maine.gov/sos/bmv/donatelife/index.htm makes it simple to sign up. You don’t have to wait until you renew your driver’s license — in fact, you don’t need a license at all — and you can also help support donation with a small contribution. Most importantly, you can learn more about how important this act is for you, your family and anyone out there waiting.

Things go wrong in life. Despite our most thoughtful precautions, that’s true. But with a simple plan, you can help save lives. All it takes is your intent to do so.

Matthew Dunlap is Maine’s secretary of state.