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'Crossing Jordan' star deals with personal drama

By Kat Carney
CNN Headline News

In July 2000, "Crossing Jordan" star Ken Howard, received a new kidney.

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(CNN) -- Stage and screen actor Ken Howard stars as Max Cavanaugh in the NBC drama, "Crossing Jordan," but he's had some drama of his own.

On a recent visit to Atlanta, he told me how a medical mishap turned into a matter of life of death.

"It was in the early '90s and I went, like a good boy, to the doctor I knew and I had him check me out," he said.

Howard says despite suspicious physical symptoms, his doctor gave him a clean bill of health.

"It didn't occur to me to go get a second opinion. And it was a misdiagnosis; I had a blockage in my urinary tract that was backing up," he said.

Howard's condition, which resulted in symptoms of extreme fatigue, eventually got the best of him.

"But, by the time they went in there they found out that I had about 30 percent function of the kidneys."

Howard underwent a procedure to re-open the blockage, but because his kidneys were so badly damaged, his doctors warned him: "Five years from now you might have to look in to a transplant."

Five years later Howard's kidneys began to fail.

According to The National Kidney Foundation, there are about 50,000 people in need of a kidney transplant, but only 14,000 patients will receive transplants because of a donor shortage.  In 2002, 50 percent of kidney transplants were from live donors.

When Howard needed a kidney, he says his wife, Linda, was the first to volunteer.

"But, there was a complication. She could have given me a blood transfusion -- but not this."

Epper and Howard
Howard with friend and donor Jeannie Epper.

Devastated by the news, Howard's wife confided in their close friend, Jeannie Epper. "She is a really famous stuntwoman; she did 'Wonder Woman' and all."

Just like in the comic books, it was "Wonder Woman" to the rescue. Epper was a perfect match.

When asked if he had second thoughts about receiving a kidney from a friend, Howard said, "I didn't because she was so clear on it on what it was she was doing and why.

"I just didn't want anything to happen to Jeannie."

In July 2000, Howard got his wish, a new kidney.

Howard was in the hospital for 10 days. Seven months later he was well enough to sign on for the pilot episode of "Crossing Jordan."

And one kidney hasn't slowed Jeannie Epper down either. The stuntwoman most recently appeared in the film, "Too Fast, Too Furious".

Howard, a spokesman for the National Kidney Foundation, says the experience has changed him in more ways than one.

"It's very humbling when someone gives you a part of themselves to keep you alive. Thankful doesn't seem to quite make it."

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