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Doctor remembered as mountain climber with passion for life
Jean Ellis, 59, an emergency department doctor at St. Vincent Healthcare, died of a heart attack Monday morning while cycling along Old Hardin Road.

Whether it was running marathons, climbing the world's highest mountains or working as a physician, Jean Ellis felt compelled to perform at the highest level.

To each of his passions he brought the same high level of preparation and meticulous attention to detail.

Ellis, 59, an emergency department doctor at St. Vincent Healthcare, died of a heart attack Monday morning while cycling along Old Hardin Road at Dickie Road in Lockwood. It was one leg of a familiar 50-mile route through the hills to Pryor and back, a route he had pedaled hundreds of times.

Ellis, who was nationally known for his climbing, pushed himself hard, trained continually and stayed in phenomenal athletic shape.

In 1996, he became the first African-American to summit an 8,000-meter peak, a benchmark for elite climbers. The peak, Cho Oyu, in Tibet, is the sixth-highest mountain in the world.

Although he never felt his life was in jeopardy while climbing Cho Oyu, on his way down he realized that the smallest stumble might have resulted in death.

"Every single step, your life is on the line," he said in an interview after the expedition.

Ellis made three attempts to climb Mount Everest, the world's highest mountain, and in 1988 was part of an expedition that successfully put the first two American women on the summit. He was drawn to climbing in 1981 after seeing Mount Everest while at a seminar on Third World medicine in Nepal.

To describe his fascination with climbing, he used the words of another climber who said, "Mountain climbing has almost no purpose, but it has great meaning."

Before learning to climb, he was a long-distance runner — he qualified for the 1980 U.S. Olympic marathon trials — and a competitive cyclist.

At St. Vincent, where Ellis was equally passionate about emergency medicine, he worked the night shift to leave his days free for cycling and conditioning.

In the emergency room, Ellis knew how to make split-second decisions, said Dr. Chuck Aragon, an anesthesiologist at St. Vincent and a fellow cyclist.

"It's all about decision making, and he was a very good decision maker," Aragon said. "The number of people that he saved their lives is probably in the thousands."

Dr. James Boslough, also an emergency doctor at St. Vincent, remembered how Ellis' meticulous work habits made him "the most dependable guy you could imagine.

"He'd bend over backward to help you out, or help with a patient. He was like a soul mate for us," Boslough said.

Ellis was also passionate about jazz and his Porsche cars. Three years ago, he became a licensed race car driver.

Ellis' wife, Shirley, an emergency department nurse at Billings Clinic, said her husband would want to be remembered as a man who took his share of life.

"He took what he wanted and enjoyed it to the fullest," she said. "He was very focused and worked hard. He never had anything handed to him."

A niece in Seattle, Wendy Ellis, was inspired by her uncle to return to school to take the course work to apply for medical school.

"My uncle was a very quiet, very humble man, but he was giant. He took life by the reins. It's very hard to mourn him, because there's nothing he missed out on," she said.

Her uncle rarely talked about his accomplishments, he just did them, she said.

Ellis was born in Luxembourg. His father, an African-American serviceman, met and married his mother, an Italian, while stationed in Europe during World War II. Ellis grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio. His father worked days and put himself through law school at night.

From his father, Ellis learned that just being good wasn't good enough, he had to be better.

"He always felt driven, that he had to be better than everyone else because he was black," his wife said.

His father, Ralph, died in January. His mother, Germaine, lives in Billings.

Ellis worked in several emergency departments in California before coming to Billings in 1992 to work at Deaconess Billings Clinic. He joined the staff at St. Vincent Healthcare in September 1994.

Friends in the medical community are setting up an endowment fund to support local bike trails. Contributions to the fund can be made through the St. Vincent Healthcare Foundation, 1106 N. 30th St., Billings, MT 59101. A memorial service, organized by St. Vincent Healthcare in conjunction with Billings Clinic, will be held Thursday at 4 p.m. in the St. Vincent Healthcare chapel.

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