The art of recovery: Before there was SARS, Rachael Palakdjian tried to understand the disease

In response to the 1995 SARS outbreak in Hong Kong, Rachael Palakdjian came up with the Face of a Suffering Mother. Now six years old, the then-three-year-old roamed the streets of New York with…

In response to the 1995 SARS outbreak in Hong Kong, Rachael Palakdjian came up with the Face of a Suffering Mother. Now six years old, the then-three-year-old roamed the streets of New York with a white cloth diaper and a scarred head, conjuring up images of an imbecile prone to being teased.

Today, Palakdjian is a developmental therapist at Kennedy Krieger Institute who creates art and teaching materials that are being used in schools around the world to help others with learning disabilities. Palakdjian grew up in a wealthy and well-established family, and remembers the panic that gripped her parents, then responsible for 13 kids, the night before SARS was detected in Hong Kong. “I remember on the fourth, fifth, sixth day we all sat in a circle and we were like, oh my gosh, do we have a disease, do we have to get medical help?” Palakdjian told The New York Times Magazine in 2015.

Over the past 20 years, the number of scientists and researchers attempting to understand SARS has grown exponentially. More than two dozen research teams dedicated to the disease span continents and span the field from microbiology to genomics. Information sharing and communication across international borders has become easier, as Web-based tools that would have been controversial just a decade ago have become widely accessible.

The viral illness has also undergone rapid change over the years. Researchers currently exploring the possibility of therapy and a cure for SARS — and the other less chronic chronic diseases that plague humanity — are working to unravel the mystery and find better ways to protect and diagnose people vulnerable to life-threatening illness. But in the meantime, they are working to make a difference, both in the way SARS was experienced globally at the time and how the illness is currently perceived. For some, such as Palakdjian, it means getting to know families who had to cope with the virus the first time around and providing a counterbalance to the fear, confusion and unnecessary anxiety surrounding SARS.

Palakdjian brings her art to the Kennedy Krieger Institute, where she has worked for the past four years. For most, this means keeping a library of art books, the company website or her own notebook that she uses to write new visions of how to prevent the next pandemic. Through her art, Palakdjian now teaches third-graders about disability and kids who are learning disabilities. To do this, she makes piles of casts that each act as a piece of art that depicts different treatment options for a child, based on the child’s diagnosis and age. The shapes and numbers she writes on the pile reflect how long she hopes the child will need the treatment; researchers have shown that, for some, the process might take up to three years.

“I knew about SARS,” Palakdjian said, “but I didn’t know how close it was to home.”

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