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'Better than meeting red pandas,' says living kidney donor about donating her kidney to a stranger

AKF Ambassador Kat Velkoff donated her kidney to a stranger in 2020 and ever since, has been advocating for living organ donor protections in Virginia.
Kat Velkoff and Agustin De La O Martinez

Kat Velkoff has had some incredible experiences in her 31 years of life. She has traveled to 40 states (including Alaska), hiked part of the Appalachian Trail, performed Shakespeare and marched in color guard world championships every year since she was 16, winning four medals. She has even fed a banana to a rhinoceros and grapes to a red panda. But what tops the list of her experiences?

"The day I donated my kidney was by far the best day of my life," says Kat. "It's the best thing I ever did. Better than meeting red pandas."

Kat did a nondirected donation, choosing to donate her kidney to a stranger. She did not meet her recipient, Agustin De La O Martinez, until two days after their surgeries, which took place on Nov. 11, 2020. "I don't know what I was expecting, but the second we met, we were both inconsolable," recalls Kat. "He's so sweet. He was only 24 at the time and had been on dialysis for four years and on the transplant waiting list for two years."

Agustin was born in Mexico, and as it turns out, he was born just one hour from where Kat's grandmother was born. "We were meant to be kidney buddies," she says.

While deciding to donate a kidney is a big decision for some, Kat has known she would become a kidney donor since college. After attending a bone marrow drive, she registered to be a potential bone marrow donor — and convinced her mom to register, too. In researching what becoming a bone marrow donor entailed, she discovered that she could also donate a kidney.

Kat remembers thinking, "I'm young, I'm in college and am dancing competitively, so I can't take time off to have a major abdominal surgery, but one day, I'll definitely donate a kidney. That's in my future, for sure. Why not?"

When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down everything, Kat decided it was the perfect opportunity to fulfill that plan. After discussing the decision with her family, Kat called her local hospital in August 2020 to begin the process of donating her kidney and was "immediately hit with this very long checklist of things you have to do before you can even be approved to donate a kidney."

Kat was surprised when her social worker added "buy life insurance" to that checklist. Her social worker explained that having only one kidney would be considered a pre-existing condition by life insurance companies that could then refuse to cover her or increase her premium payments.

When her social worker asked Kat if she planned to buy life insurance at their next meeting, Kat responded, "No. I'm going to change the law."

And that is just what she did.

About six months after her surgery, Kat took the next step in her kidney journey: becoming an advocate for other living organ donors. She wrote a letter to her local representative, Virginia Delegate Karrie Delaney, sharing her story and living donor statistics for the state. Del. Delaney responded and asked for a meeting to begin working on what would become House Bill 421, which would protect living donors from insurance discrimination.

Simultaneously, Kat became an American Kidney Fund (AKF) Ambassador. Her first Ambassador meeting included a presentation from a Maryland delegate about how to talk to your state legislators. "Perfect," Kat thought, "this is exactly why I joined!"

Kat and AKF staff also met with Virginia Sen. Adam Ebbin to discuss introducing the bill. Kat recalls that Sen. Ebbin had many questions, which she and AKF staff were able to answer. At their next meeting, Kat says Sen. Ebbin told them he was going to introduce the legislation because she and AKF staff had been so thorough that he had no reason not to propose it. Sen. Ebbin introduced Virginia Senate Bill 271 — a companion bill (a Senate version of a House bill, or vice versa) to House Bill 421 — in January.

Kat's efforts did not stop will the bill's introduction. She also testified in front of the Virginia General Assembly on behalf of the legislation multiple times. "This is an important issue. If they need someone to talk about it, I'll be that person. I'll keep talking."

One point that Kat reiterates is that living organ donation is not about the donor, it is about the recipient. She explains: "I wish lawmakers could understand that while this seems like a bill about saving living donors money, it's actually not about the donors. It's about our recipients and making sure that they can get the organs they need to change their lives."

On April 11, 2022, Kat's hard work paid off when Governor Youngkin signed this bill into law. With this new law, Virginia's grade on AKF's State of the States: Living Donor Protection Report Card improves from a C to a B. The Living Donor Protection Report Card measures seven types of legislation states should enact to provide protections for living organ donors and encourage living donations. In the absence of federal legislation to protect living donors, there is an uneven patchwork of protections across the nation, with some states providing no protections at all. The average grade for the U.S. is a D.

"I'm hoping that this new law will reduce barriers for people who want to be living donors but are unsure about making that final commitment because of financial reasons, like they're afraid of losing their job or those higher life insurance premiums," says Kat. "Of course, the end result will be that somebody gets a kidney. So, the impact there is completely worth it — for the donors and the recipients."

As for Kat and Agustin, they are both living life to the fullest and even planning a possible vacation together in the future. Kat says, "I feel like a million dollars! I'm a donor, I feel great!"


Meredith Deeley

Meredith Deeley is the communications specialist at the American Kidney Fund.