A skinny girl who grew up in Lombard and Westmont and played three varsity sports in high school, Patti Saltiel says she didn't even realize she had grown into a 188-pound, middle-age mother of four until the tragedy of New Year's Day 2011.
Cathy, her older sister and only sibling, was watching the Saltiel family's house and dog in Willowbrook during the holidays that year. The vacationing Saltiel and her family returned on New Year's Day and learned from her grieving mother, Joyce, that Cathy had been discovered dead in their home that morning, having died from internal bleeding and blood pressure issues caused by a peptic ulcer Saltiel didn't even know her sister had. That moment changed Saltiel's life.
"I just realized none of us is guaranteed tomorrow," Saltiel remembers thinking in her grief. "I've got these four teenagers, and I don't want my mother to have to tell them I'm not going to be here tomorrow."
After graduating from Marquette University and working as a nurse, Patti married cardiologist Dr. Frank Saltiel and gave birth to their children, Emma, 18, Sarah, 17, Sam, 15, and Frank, 14.
"I left the hospital (after giving birth to their second daughter) wearing my jeans," the mom says. "But then I don't know what happened."
Weighing about 128 pounds as a young adult, Saltiel figures a gain of just half-a-pound a month for a decade would account for her additional 60 pounds. The gain happened so slowly, "I never thought of myself as fat," she says.
Her transformation in the other direction after Cathy's death happened so quickly, a friend she ran into at the grocery store didn't even recognize her.
Saltiel hasn't had alcohol or any foods loaded with carbohydrates since her sister's death. She traded in bread, rice and pasta for yogurt, apples and broccoli. In Cathy's memory, she vowed to be healthier and now has lost 70 pounds from her 5-foot-5-and-a-half-inch frame, exercises six days a week at the Five Seasons Family Sports Club in Burr Ridge and competes in triathlons.
While she has eaten healthy foods and exercised for decades, Saltiel says she didn't take her health seriously even though she has vivid memories of her dad, Dick, dropping dead of a heart problem at the table during dinner when he was just 40 years old.
"I did eat healthy, I just ate lots of it," she says. Sweets and alcohol could be problems for her, she admits.
"If I had one Hershey Kiss, they were all gone. I'd make cookies and eat the whole plate," she remembers. At parties, she would tell herself that she'd stop after one or two drinks, but she never did, she says.
"When my sister passed away, she took all my demons with her," Saltiel says. "I can't explain it, but the way I like to think of it is this: My sister lived a very meager life. She didn't have much money, and she couldn't give us presents. I like to think that when she died, this is the gift she left for me."
The shock of her sister dying at age 54 made Saltiel a better mother in every way, she says.
"I feel like I'm a nicer person," she says, adding she feels better without junkie foods, alcohol and all those extra pounds.
In the wake of her sister's death, Saltiel promised a friend she'd participate in a triathlon that July where she'd have to swim a half-mile, bike 12 miles and then run 5 kilometers.
"I could not run around the track once," Saltiel remembers. "I told her I'd do it, but I knew in my heart I was never going to do it."
While she often made hollow New Year's resolutions to lose weight and get in shape, "I never thought of myself as fat," she says. But the same "addictive personality" that once made her eat and drink too much suddenly made her addicted to training, she says.
"When you feel good and look good, you gain confidence to pursue things you never even thought about before. The possibilities are endless," says Jan Edmonds, a Five Seasons trainer who has witnessed Saltiel's turnaround.
"I didn't have a goal, but my personality being what it was, the more I lost, the more I wanted to lose," says Saltiel, who was ready for that triathlon.
"When we finished, I could have done the whole thing again," she says.
Saltiel will compete in that same triathlon this July, but first she's looking forward to participating in the 5-K Dirty Girl Mud Run on June 30 on a very muddy obstacle course at the Lake County Fairgrounds in Libertyville.
"My kids joke about me being this freak," Saltiel says of new healthy eating and exercise regimen that typically takes her to the health club for three hours or more a day. "But I think they are happy with the new mom they have."
That's all true, says Emma, a freshman at Marquette University and the oldest of the four Saltiel children.
"Looking at her now, she's like a whole new person," Emma says. "It's just a normal happy environment in our house. Her being happy with herself makes everyone happier."
Staying at home while her kids were little, Saltiel now works part-time as a cardiac rehab nurse helping patients improve their health.
"A lot of them have seen my transformation," says Saltiel, whose weight has stabilized at between 117 and 122 pounds. Just as her sister inspired her, Saltiel says she hopes her example can inspire others to get in shape.
"I don't have to struggle," she says, adding she has a healthier relationship with everyone in her family on this Mother's Day, and she doesn't see herself slipping into the old bad habits of her past. "The only thing I do is charge forward."