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Runner up: Mary Ellen Olbrisch, 50

"It's about my patients."

A Chicago native, Olbrisch traveled from Florida to San Francisco to Texas to Richmond for her studies and career. Her family remains in Chicago, she says. "I'm the only person who ever left." And her manner is more brisk than compassionate: "I'm not very laid-back and meditative," she admits. "But I love what I do."

For instance, Olbrisch proudly tells the story of a woman who "had grown up in terrible circumstances" and was living under a bridge. Her liver had been destroyed by alcohol-related cirrhosis and hepatitis C. The patient, encouraged by Olbrisch, underwent treatment for alcoholism and anxiety, and got healthy enough to receive a transplant.

But "there are some people who are never going to get ready," she says. Often patients are people in their 40s and 50s who have recently discovered they have hepatitis C (a serious disease spread by intravenous drug use, tattooing and blood transfusions before 1992). At that age, she says, it's difficult to accept drastic alterations in their lives in order to survive.

Smokers have it the hardest, Olbrisch says. When she tells them they must kick the habit (which she calls "probably the worst addiction there is") before the transplant, many refuse. "I've already had to quit everything else," they tell her. "Why do I have to quit this one thing?" They think Olbrisch is trying to deprive them of all life's pleasures, she says with resignation.

Nevertheless, "you can't do everything just because you will to do it," Olbrisch says. This isn't something she read in a textbook. Olbrisch learned it the hard way, she says, through a long, disheartening battle with obesity. And interestingly enough, it was her own patients who showed her how to get help.

If you met Olbrisch two years ago, you might not recognize her now. She's a trim 50-year-old with defined muscles, green eyes and sandy hair that falls perfectly in place. She's been in this shape only since December 2000, when she underwent gastric bypass surgery.

Those three words, for some, connote an easy way out, a quick fix, a cheat. For years Olbrisch agreed. "I had a really sophisticated understanding of my problem, which is why I knew that gastric bypass surgery would probably not work for me, or would work by making me miserable," Olbrisch told her support group a few months ago. "And then of course, I also knew that gastric bypass surgery was a form of cheating and clear evidence of a terrible character flaw. My head was full of ideas that, in retrospect, are crazy."

Obesity is like standing in a vortex, Olbrisch explains. There seem to be so many roads out: drugs and supplements, counseling, different diet plans, starving, bingeing, purging. Yet, she says, for her and millions of others, every road led right back into the starting point.

For years, she'd considered surgery, she says. Yet other health professionals warned her about the side effects and told her frightening stories about failed surgeries. But then, she says, "something interesting happened." In her work, she evaluated a number of patients who had had gastric bypass surgery. All of them, she says, had discovered in it a solution and wished they'd done it sooner.

That, plus worries about hypertension and diabetes, helped Olbrisch make up her mind. In 2000, she had the surgery. The following year she walked 1,000 miles, started strength training, and lost 115 pounds.

The experience gave her more compassion for her patients who struggle to change their lives, she says, and also helped her prove to them that they can change. Yet, Olbrisch says, "it's not about me when I'm working," she says. "It's about my patients."

Olbrisch thought she'd take the chance to enter Style's contest, and, just once, make it all about her. "I just thought, well, I would be a good story," she says. She attributes her success to everyone who supported her: "Everything worth accomplishing in life is a team effort." S

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