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Cause Creation: Teen Dies in Transplant Outrage, and a Movement Begins

By Tom Watson on December 24, 2007No Comment

When 17-year-old Nataline Sarkisyan died on Dec. 20th while awaiting a liver transplant her insurance company refused to pay for until it was too late, her case moved beyond one family’s desperate struggle to save a young life and become a cause for thousands of people who discovered her case on the Internet – on blogs, in Facebook, on YouTube, in their Twitter feeds. I found out about Nataline from Jason Calacanis, an old friend from our Silicon Alley days in the 90s. Jason posted on his blog and into his Twitter stream (I don’t remember which I saw first) and like many others, I was immediately struck by the story.

A leukemia patient, Nataline needed a new liver after her treatment for the blood disorder caused series complications. Her insurer, Cigna, derided the operation as “too experimental.” The family hired a lawyer and organized friends to pressure Cigna to change its mind. Cigna appears to have reversed its decision to deny the transplant after about 150 teenagers and nurses protested outside its Glendale office Thursday, according to ABC News. But it was too late. After the teen’s death, family attorney Mark Geragos said that Cigna “maliciously killed her” and asked for murder or manslaughter charges against Cigna HealthCare.

I’d read nothing of this until this headline showed up in my feeds – CIGNA kills Nataline Sarkisyan. Wow, Jason’s headline certainly got my attention and as it did for thousands of others, the full story pulled at the heartstrings and stoked a sense of anger and outrage. Now, Jason Calacanis is more than your average blogger – the man’s a brilliant promoter and created a series of successful Internet properties during a decade-long career that began when he crossed the river from Brooklyn as a young lad with a certain, shall we say, attitude toward those who might get in his way. “15 Billion dollar market cap… almost 20B in revenue… you can’t afford a transplant?!” he ranted. Then he posted the names and titles of Cigna’s top executives, asking his considerable readership to go after them directly. And as the CEO of the startup Mahalo, a socially-wired search engine with results created by human editors instead of algorithms, he directed the creation of a section dedicated to the case. The page is filled with links to mainstream media stories and blog posts about Nataline, but it leads with a moving video that was created and post on YouTube by Nataline’s brother – after she was denied by Cigna, but before her death.

Nataline Sarkisyan was already a cause before her death became a national headline. An hour or so after I read Jason’s post, I checked in on Facebook to deal with the usual requests to test my movie knowledge, poke somebody back, or rate a new band. And there was an invitation to join a new group – CIGNA is Sicko – with 80 new members. Meanwhile, the YouTube video has been seen more than 15,000 times. The memorial service was yesterday in California, but the cause is still growing. Who’s willing to be the death of Nataline Sarkisyan becomes an issue in the 2008 Presidential campaign? Especially given the importance of the health insurance debate. The progressive group blog DailyKos has already made it a top story. We’ll stay tuned.

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