Family and friends pledge to lobby for health care while providing scholarships
CALABASAS, CA — When cancer was allowed to claim 17-year-old Nataline’s Sarkisyan’s life, her family vowed to change health care laws. They vowed to stop for-profit insurance companies from being allowed to decide who gets to live and who gets to die.
Saturday, nearly 500 gathered to celebrate Nataline’s legacy and the Sarkisyan Family’s 18-month health care reform crusade at the second annual Nataline’s Legacy Fashion Show.
“CIGNA insurance denied my daughter the liver transplant she needed after chemotherapy, and I lost her,” said Nataline’s tearful mother Hilda. “But I’m not going to let this go. I’m not going to let insurance companies get away with murder again. I don’t want Nataline’s death to be in vain.”
Public pressure on CIGNA prompted the insurance company to overturn its denial of coverage to Nataline. The corporate giant had told the family that a liver transplant was ‘experimental.’ When Nataline’s family, her Armenian community, and her doctors and nurses complained, engaged the news media, and staged protests, CIGNA reversed its decision.
But CIGNA’s flip-flop and reversal came too late. Nataline’s embattled body was too weak to stay alive any longer. She died hours after CIGNA’s change of mind.
Global reaction to Nataline’s death
Nataline was dead, because her surgery had not made financial sense to an insurance company. Extinguished by businessmen-bureaucrats were her dreams to study fashion, design clothing, and to continue to serve the Armenia Youth Federation. Gone were dreams of marriage, starting a family, launching a successful career, and touching thousands of lives.
“It was absurd to see and report that an insurance company could deny life and then change its mind when thousands spoke up,” said Haik Tovmasyan, a Horizon TV anchorman who attended the fashion show. “Nataline did not have to die. She should have been celebrating her 19th birthday today, attending fashion school, having fun, loving her friends and her family.”
Reaction to Nataline’s death echoed from around the world. Network and cable news stations, newspapers and radio broadcasts talked about Nataline’s passing and the insurance business fiasco that denied Nataline a chance to grow old. The California Nurses association staged protests and lobbied for health care reform using CIGNA’s catastrophic illogic as an example.
Nataline’s story grabbed the attention of the John Edwards presidential campaign, which presented Nataline’s mother at a dozen town hall meetings around the country. Edwards’ goal was to put a face on the sick health care system in the US.
CIGNA’s disastrous decision even prompted a high-ranking company executive to resign. The CIGNA official who quit told CNN that CIGNA’s decision about Nataline prompted him to walk away with disgust and pursue health care reform on Capitol Hill.
“Since we lost Nataline, at least a dozen families have called me to thank me,” said Hilda. “Their kid or husband or they themselves were denied life-saving health care from their insurance company. So they brought up my Nataline’s name. They evoked our case and spirit. That threat of media attention and public scorn that CIGNA received has already put insurance companies in fear, and we’ve saved a few precious lives.”
Nataline lives through her friends and family
In turn and as a way to make peace with their loss, Nataline’s friends organized the first fashion show a few months after her death last year at Mercedes-Benz of Calabasas.
“Nataline had an incredible sense of fashion. She drew. She wrote poetry. She was an artists,” said Vartie Khatchatryan, one of Nataline’s best friends. “The first fashion show was a way for us to say goodbye. It was a way to celebrate her. And it was so great that we decided we would do it every year on a weekend closest to her birthday.”
Over the weekend, for the second year in a row, Nataline’s Fashion Legacy attracted hundreds to the Mercedes dealership in Calabasas, where Nataline’s father Koko works. Guests were entertained by live music, participated in a raffle for gifts, enjoyed an overflow of cold beverages, Champaign, hors d’oeuvre, finger sandwiches, a variety of kebobs, a pink chocolate fondue fountain, cakes, desserts, and even a variety of Nataline’s favorite treats: gummy bears and M&M’s.
The luxury cars in the glass and marble showroom had been cleared out to make room for two stages and the slew of tables to serve the food and drinks. On one stage was Ara Dabandjian’s popular Element Band, which performed original and folk songs for nearly two hours. On the second stage, a runway, were Nataline’s friends modeling casual and formal wear that Nataline would have worn or designed.
“We found drawings of 22 gowns in Nataline’s room,” said Nataline’s mom Hilda. “My daughter wanted to go to FIDM, the Fashion Institute of Design, after she graduated from high school. And I know she would have done great. She had so much to give us, so much in her, and so much love for the world.”
The culmination of the evening was the presentation of one of 22 dresses that Nataline had designed and meticulously sketched and colored on paper. Family friend and Armenian-American designer Pol Atteu was given one of Nataline’s drawings and brought it to life as he had done last year. The colorful and classy gown brought tears to Nataline’s mother’s eyes and emotionally touched all those who had come to celebrate Nataline’s legacy.
Star-studded high-fashion affair
Hosting the evening were the talented and beautiful web journalists from Hollyscoop.com: Ani Esmailian, Diana Magpapian, and Nora Gasparian. Also attending were popular Armenian folk singing stars Gor Mkhitarian and Karnig Sarkissian, whose revolutionary songs Nataline would listen to while studying or writing.
News crews from local television and newspapers including KTTV and KCOP were also on hand to broadcast Nataline’s story to their audiences. “I couldn’t imagine losing my ten-year-old,” said the Fox 11 cameraman after shooting an interview with Hilda. “It would break me.”
Keeping Nataline’s legacy alive and making her dreams a reality were not only her family and friends but several local businesses including the Marmalade Cafe, Monster Inc., and MonaVie Team 212, which contributed food and beverages to the event. H-Teez provided some of the clothing on the runway.
“I promised Nataline that we would make her dreams a reality,” said Nataline’s brother, videographer and TV producer Bedig Sarkisyan. “If Nataline has to be the spark this country needs to start making changes in our healthcare system, then I’m okay with that. If her name has to be used by families being denied coverage, if Nataline helps people to let their insurance companies know that they will not back down, then I’m okay with that. Happy birthday, Nataline. We love you and miss you greatly.”
Supporting the fashion show and scholarship drive were members and executives from various Armenian community organizations including the Armenian Relief Society, the Armenian-American Chamber of Commerce, Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center, and the Armenian Bone Marrow Donor Registry.
Like last year, the proceeds from the fashion show will provide scholarships to those who plan to study fashion, health care, and the culinary arts. Information about the scholarships and next year’s Nataline’s Fashion Legacy may be found on-line at NatalineSarkisyan.com.
Nataline’s family, meanwhile, will continue its grassroots campaign for health care reform. Hilda Sarkisyan – a realtor by day – was invited to Washington, D.C. this week to tell lawmakers her story and why greedy insurance companies should not decide who gets to live and who doesn’t.