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D.C.'s Providence Hospital kicks off weight-loss challenge

By Kevin Sieff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 18, 2010; C03

A wiry man, clad in a top hat and coat, approached a table of volunteers at Providence Hospital in Northeast Washington on Saturday, signing on to one of the largest community weight-loss initiatives in the District's history.

"Abraham Lincoln," he called out when asked to identify himself, requesting that dietary and fitness tips be sent to Abe@whitehouse.gov.

"We appreciate you participating, Abe," said Sister Elaine Jordan. "But I'm not sure how much weight you can afford to lose."

The man shrugged, not admitting to a glimmer of irony, and the 16th U.S. president's name was added to a growing list of participants in the hospital's 150,000-pound weight-loss challenge.

If the anachronism could pass anywhere, it would be here, at the hospital chartered by Lincoln in 1861. The facility is so proud of its connection to Honest Abe that a Lincoln impersonator is invited to address the crowd at public events.

The hospital that once treated soldiers injured in the Battle of Bull Run now is battling a modern epidemic: rampant obesity.

"This is a major problem in the community," said hospital spokeswoman Marin Hedin during the facility's 150th anniversary Health and Fitness Day. "Our approach to dealing with it will be challenging, but we think we can do it."

That approach is to build a network of participants who, cumulatively, intend to lose 150,000 pounds by July 2011. Participants will be able to track individual and collective progress online, as well as receive advice on healthy living through the initiative's http://providence150.org Web site.

Lincoln's name, volunteered by impersonator James Hayney, was one of many added to the hospital's sign-up sheet Saturday.

Wanda Ellison, 54, committed to losing 50 pounds in the next year. "I've been meaning to do this for a while," Ellison said. "I want to be healthier, and this is the kind of encouragement I need."

Ellison then joined the crowd outside to hear Hayney's address, which fused Lincoln's words about the Civil War -- "shall it be peace or the sword" -- with some more contemporary thoughts on the hospital's weight-loss initiative.

"Abe, you're the man!" a man yelled after Hayney finished speaking.

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