Nina Martinez, a 35-year-old, HIV-positive public health consultant from Atlanta, has made organ donor history this week by becoming the first living HIV-positive patient to donate a kidney to an HIV-positive patient recipient. The surgery was performed at Johns Hopkins Hospital; according to the doctors, after determining whether donors and potential recipients had compatibility in terms of their antiretroviral treatments, the surgery itself was just like any other transplant surgery between HIV-negative donors and recipients.
“I really want people to reconsider what living with HIV means,” Martinez told CNN. “If anyone is proof that you can live a lifetime with HIV, that is myself. I’ve been living with HIV for 35 years — pretty much the length of the epidemic in the United States.” She first contracted HIV as an infant, infected through a blood transfusion before supplies were tested for the virus.
Martinez hopes that her donation will not only improve the quality of life of the recipient of her kidney, but also counteract the stigma that people have about people who live with HIV. “Society perceives me, and people like me, as people who bring death,” she told the Washington Post over the weekend. “And I can’t figure out any better way to show that people like me can bring life.” One of her surgeons, Dr. Dorry Segev, concurred and explained how far we’ve come through advancements in HIV/AIDS treatments. “They have a disease that 30 years ago was a death sentence,” said Segev. “Today, they’re so healthy they can give someone else life.”
The Post cited a 2017 study that found that HIV-positive donors are just about as likely to develop serious kidney disease as HIV-negative donors — meaning, the risk of health complications is comparable, whether a donor is HIV-positive or not. Until recently, HIV-positive people were banned from donating their viable organs to HIV-positive recipients. Prior to Martinez’s operation, HIV-to-HIV transplants only took place when the donor was deceased, and not that long ago, perfectly viable organs were simply discarded while HIV-positive languished on waiting lists until they could be matched with HIV-negative donors.
Martinez had initially gotten the idea to offer up her kidney after seeing and HIV-to-HIV transplant on an episode of Grey’s Anatomy. When an HIV-positive friend of hers needed a kidney, she stepped up to the plate and tracked down the team at Johns Hopkins so that she could be her friend’s donor. Unfortunately, the friend passed away before the surgery could take place, but Martinez decided that she still wanted to help an anonymous donor and pave the way for future life-saving transplant surgeries. Both Martinez and the anonymous recipient of her kidney are recovering and doing well.