Family Carries on Deceased Fashion Designer's Dream
Nataline Sarkisyan attracted national attention when an insurance company denied her claim for a kidney transplant.
Although it's been nearly five years since Nataline Sarkisyan died from leukemia complications, her dream of being a fashion designer lives on.
On Sunday, the Timonium-based Maryland Academy of Couture Arts hosted its annual Rising Stars haute couture fashion show at Pier 5 Hotel in Baltimore. The event raised funds for The Nataline Sarkisyan Foundation, a nonprofit granting scholarships to those interested in careers in the fashion, culinary and medical industries.
"Nataline was very talented," said Hilda Sarkisyan, her mother, in a telephone interview with Patch. "Before she had passed, she had been admitted to [the Fashion Institute of Technology]."
Nataline was diagnosed with leukemia when she turned 14 years old. After a three-year remission, the cancer returned in 2007.
Her story made national headlines when CIGNA Healthcare denied granting Nataline a kidney transplant, calling the procedure experimental. The insurance company ultimately reversed its decision—hours before her death.
The aspiring fashion designer was 17 when she died on Dec. 20, 2007.
Hilda Sarkisyan, a 46-year-old realtor who lives in Calabasas, CA, has directly blamed CIGNA for her daughter's death and has made it her mission to fight for health care reform in the United States.
Specifically, she aims to change the health care provisions in the Employee Retirement Security Income Act with an amendment, called "Nataline's Law," that would enable consumers to sue insurance companies for denying their claims.
"I'm very angry," she said. "My story is not unique. ... I never got to say goodbye."
Hilda said she regularly lobbies for her cause at events promoting health care reform. She said the years that have passed have not dulled the pain of losing her daughter.
Phone calls seeking comment from CIGNA were not returned.
Shortly after Nataline's death, Hilda found a journal her daughter kept containing 22 outfit sketches. Every July—at the annual Nataline's Fashion Legacy event in Calabasas—renowned celebrity fashion designer Pol Atteu brings one of the drawings to life. The 2012 dress was unveiled at the Rising Stars show.
Ella Pritsker, founder of the Maryland Academy of Couture Arts, chooses a different charity to benefit at each Rising Stars event. She learned of Nataline's story through one of her students, Mary Harrington, Nataline's third cousin.
Harrington, a 35-year-old Frederick resident who had aspirations to be a designer in high school, said Nataline inspired her to pursue fashion as a full time career. She said spending time in her cousin's old bedroom in Calabasas sparked her interest.
"There was an eerie connection," Harrington said. "This is now my dream because of her unfortunate tragedy."
Harrington is actively pursuing her new career after doing other jobs. She plans to specialize in formal and bridal wear, and Pritsker said she's off to a promising start.
"She is always fun and uplifting and always has a smile on her face," Pritsker said. "I look forward to helping Mary to fulfill her cousin Nataline's dream of becoming a fashion designer."
But Hilda said she won't rest until Nataline's Law is adapted.
"[Nataline] left me with a mission," she said, voice cracking. "I am so desperate to make this law happen. I won't have any peace until it does."