Actress Janet Paone played many roles in her career before landing her toughest one: the star in her own real-life health drama.

The Mounds View native and longtime drama director at Irondale High School has performed on stages all over the Twin Cities, and is perhaps best known for her comedic role as Vivian Snustad in "Church Basement Ladies."

But a couple years ago, while performing on a national tour, Paone noticed her legs were badly swollen and her urine was cloudy.

Doctors told her that her one good kidney was failing, and the only thing that would save her was a transplant.

"I was completely overwhelmed and terrified," said Paone, 48, who had already lost most of her other kidney when she was a child. "I had many nights where I'd lay awake crying, wondering what's going to happen to me?"

She put her name on the transplant waiting list and hoped for the best.

Throughout her illness, she kept acting and coaching the students at Irondale High, where she's been the drama director for 25 years.

She's directing them in their upcoming play, "The Man Who Came to Dinner," which opens April 30.

A long waiting list

More than 100,000 people -- including more than 2,400 Minnesotans --are now on the national transplant waiting list, said Rebecca Ousley, a spokeswoman for LifeSource, a St. Paul nonprofit that coordinates organ donations. April is National Donate Life Month, and Paone has become an outspoken supporter of the cause, often sharing her story with audiences after her performances.

Back in 2007, while Paone waited for a transplant, she accepted a friend's invitation to perform in a community theater production of "Fiddler on the Roof."

After rehearsal one night, she and her cast mates went out for a drink. Paone's friend asked her how she was feeling. "OK," she said.

Another actor, John Vaughn, asked Paone what was wrong.

"Oh, I need a kidney transplant and I'm on a waiting list," she told him. She didn't want to dwell on it, but Vaughn was undeterred.

He asked her what her blood type was.

"O positive," she answered.

"I'm O positive too. You can have my kidney," he said.

Paone was stunned. She had just met Vaughn, 55, an airline pilot. Later that night, he asked her where he should go to get tested to find out if he was a suitable donor.

Paone says she couldn't believe it. "You know, this is not like 'Can I borrow your pen?'" she told him.

Vaughn insisted he was serious and then asked her where she was being treated. She gave him the hospital name, but didn't expect him to follow through.

At the next rehearsal, Vaughn told Paone that he had just been tested and learned that he was a preliminary match.

"I just looked at him, and he said, 'I told you I was serious,'" she said. She soon learned that Vaughn's mother had lost a kidney.

"I knew you only needed one kidney to survive," Vaughn said. "To not give her a shot at a kidney seemed foolish."

The production finished in August 2007, and the two actors lost touch. Paone says she figured that Vaughn had changed his mind and didn't really want to go through with it.

Weeks, then months passed, and she remained on the transplant waiting list.

"I was so full of fluids. My legs were jumpy. The nerves were fried from all the toxins," Paone said.

It was November now and Paone, who was about to go on dialysis, was at home chatting on her computer when an e-mail from Vaughn popped up.

"How've you been?" he asked. "Not great," she typed back. "Is that kidney still available?"

He immediately responded, and asked her if she'd received the package he'd sent? She raced out to check and there it was: a care package with a note saying he was having all the remaining testing done.

"I picked up the phone and called him and started crying. And crying and crying. I said, 'We don't even know if you're a perfect match and this is so nice of you!'" Paone recalled.

A few days later, officials from Hennepin County Medical Center called to tell Paone that Vaughn was indeed a match. On Nov. 27, 2007, Paone received one of Vaughn's kidneys.

"It only took a day and a half and my body was clean," Paone said. "I felt so much better!"

Allie Shah • 612-673-4488