Atlanta woman becomes country's first HIV+ living kidney donor
ATLANTA - If you ask Nina Martinez why she has fought so hard to become the first HIV + living kidney donor,
her answer is pretty simple.
"I just wanted to be just like anybody else," Martinez says. "I think, in 2019, this is going to blow a lot of peoples' minds. Because I'm sitting here today, as someone living for 35 years with HIV, and I'm about to donate this organ."
The 36-year old Atlanta resident acquired HIV as a newborn from a blood transfusion in the early 80's, before there was a test to screen the blood supply for the virus.
"That blood saved my life," Martinez says. "I needed that blood, and somebody needs this kidney. So, for me, personally, it does come full circle, to be able to donate an organ."
Until the HOPE Act passed in 2013, it was illegal for someone with HIV to register as an organ donor.
By December of 2018, the United Network for Organ Sharing says 100 transplants had been performed between HIV+ donors and HIV+ recipients.
All of the donors were deceased.
But the public health consultant didn't want to wait, until she died to help someone.
"I wanted to make a difference when I was still alive," she says. "I wanted to be a living kidney donor."
March 25th, after 3 and a half years of trying, Martinez got her wish at Johns Hopkins Medical Center in Baltimore, donating a kidney to a stranger, who wants to remain anonymous.
To be able to do this, she had to pass a series of medical tests.
"You have to have an undetected viral load, which means that the lab tests cannot find evidence of your virus in your blood stream," she says. "That doesn't mean you're cured; it just means it's below the level of detection."
Becoming a living donor comes with risks.
HIV can damage the kidneys, so can some medications used to treat the virus.
So, Martinez has been carefully screened,
Unlike most living donors, she also had to undergo a kidney biopsy.
"They don't see me having HIV as something contributing a great risk of kidney disease later in life," Martinez says. "They're really looking at what they look at for everyone, which is, I'm young. I don't have a history of hypertension, and I don't have a history of diabetes."
It's a big step, she says, and an emotional one.
"I think because there is just so much HIV-related stigma," she says. "I'm a very self-assured person. But when you have to listen to a lot of messaging from society, that you're a second class citizen, that you're less than, it does get to you."
But with this gift, Nina Martinez hopes she can change the way people think about HIV.
"I think for me, first and foremost, it's the chance of showing people that I am just as normal as you," Martinez says. "And, I don't think there is any better way, or more powerful way, than to donate an organ."