April is National Donate Life Month -- 30 days dedicated to increasing awareness about the life-saving importance of becoming an organ and tissue donor.

On April 1, Donate Life Connecticut, an organ and tissue donation advocacy group, joined State Representatives Deborah Heinrich and Peggy Sayers to kick off the month by helping to increase understanding about the topic.

At the event, Heinrich said, "Over 1,150 Connecticut residents are waiting for a life-saving organ transplant and over 106,000 are waiting around the country. One organ and tissue donor can save 75 people."

New Canaanite Greg Arakalean, 64, is one of those people.

He recounts vividly the day he got his life back. It was 24 years ago, and he had just returned home from an odd sort of hospital stay -- a less common kind of inpatient visit a person eagerly awaits.

Arakalean was the fresh recipient of a kidney transplant.

"I was better than new ... I went home and I had all kinds of energy," he said. "It was a miracle. ... My color came back, my hair looked better, I wasn't getting out of breath anymore."

Eighteen months earlier, Arakalean had been admitted to Norwalk Hospital with acute renal failure. He was a young father with two daughters, ages 6 and 9, and a career that would eventually lead him to become director of purchasing at Norwalk Hospital.

Doctors released Arakalean from the patient bed, but on a series of life-altering conditions: he had to stick to a strict diet and exercise regimen and undergo three four-hour dialysis session every week.

"For a person who doesn't do well sitting still, it's very hard to do," Arakalean said of the dialysis treatment. "I joke about the diet, but it was pretty much reduced to oatmeal, chicken and wax beans -- no tomatoes, no chocolate. And I could have only a small amount of water each day."

Adjusting to a severe schedule of dialysis and dietary restrictions was necessary, he said. And though it helped his body, it didn't make him feel well.

"I have an old suit and it's gray ... . I had a friend who said I looked like that suit. I was gray in color and I really didn't look well," Arakalean said.

He added, "The doctors said to me, `You can get a kidney transplant,' and I thought to myself, `OK, sign me up because the prospects of living on dialysis were not good.'"

At Hartford Hospital and Yale-New Haven Hospital, Arakalean said he learned about kidney transplant surgery. Doctors decided he was a good candidate for the surgery, and added his name to a waiting list.

On Fourth of July weekend in 1987, Arakalean's wife answered a phone call from Hartford Hospital. Doctors wanted Arakalean to report to the hospital that night and undergo transplant surgery in the morning.

"She jumped up and was dancing around," Arakalean said, adding, "I didn't get up and dance around the room, but I got in the car, packed every thing up and I drove there. I got my things in the car and I was gone in an hour."

Arakalean said he doesn't know much about the person who saved his life. He describes his donor as "a young person on a motorcycle" who, in death, was able to give him life.

"My donor probably might have had a wife or a family and people to grieve for him or her ... . It's hard to even think about, but I hope it added some meaning that on the day this person died, their generosity might have saved four or five lives."

Arakalean said he sometimes speaks to groups to help encourage people to become organ donors.

"It really comes from people," he said. "This is something people can do."

Connecticut residents can register to become organ donors by visiting the state Department of Motor Vehicles or www.donatelifect.org.