Nurse, cyclist, marathon walker and friend to mums and babies mourned

Averil Sheehan.
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Averil Sheehan.

Averil Jean Sheehan. Born March 13, 1956 in Inglewood. Died September 1, 2015. Nurse, La Leche League stalwart, marathon walker and cyclist.

Five weeks ago, Palmerston North Hospital emergency department nurse Averil Sheehan completed her 108th marathon at Fort William in Scotland.

On Wednesday, walkers, cyclists and La Leche League friends packed St Mary's Catholic Church in Ruahine St for her funeral.

Never a public figure, Averil was described by hospital chaplain Sande Ramage as a treasure, a role model and mentor who was kind and humble.

"She was one of those people who helps stick communities together – a sort of invisible glue."

Ramage said Averil demonstrated a very practical type of Christianity, accepting and valuing people.

She was born in Inglewood, growing up as a twin, one of five children in the family.

Averil first considered physiotherapy as a career, but instead, followed in her mother's footsteps to become a nurse.

She did her training at Palmerston North Hospital, gaining her registration in 1977, and worked there for most of the rest of her life.

Averil met her husband John in 1978, they married in 1980, and recently celebrated their 35th wedding anniversary.

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When the three children Clare, James and Laura were young Averil became involved in the mother-to-mother breastfeeding support group La Leche League.

The league's national administrator of leaders Janet McClean said she was a dedicated volunteer who always made herself available if there was a chance to help a mother with breastfeeding and baby care.

"When she went to her first league meeting, she could not have guessed it was to be the beginning of a volunteer career that would span three decades."

Averil went on to become a leader, hosting meetings for mums and babies, making herself available to take calls and counsel and support mothers with whatever issues they faced.

Later, she held several national roles, and remained the regional representative for the league's Alumnae Association.

McClean said everything Averil did was well researched, based on the best available information, and presented in a way that was relevant and accessible.

She wrote the league's first leaflet for mothers wishing to continue breastfeeding when they returned to work.

Palmerston North league leader Jackie Wheeler said Averil had been a rock for the local group, with wisdom and knowledge that inspired others and changed lives.

In 1991 Averil took up a position in the hospital's emergency department, where she worked until recently, and she also completed a psychology degree.

As the children grew up Averil caught the exercise bug.

At first it was swimming, but as sister Kristina Wall explained, you can't chat to your friends while swimming.

And so it was walking, and also, cycling.

In November 2014 in Feilding Averil clocked up her 100th marathon.

Her cycling stamina was witnessed by Bike Manawatu and Velogirls friend Christine Christie.

"Gutsy and determined, energetic and relentless... encouraging and interested in everyone else's goals and achievements."

In 2012 she cycled from Wellington to Auckland, a total 800km, and in 2013 she rode the Christie250 between Taupo and Palmerston North raising money for the Cancer Society. Her most recent major cycling event was a double lap in the Lake Taupo Cycle Challenge.

The Sheehans had just returned from a trip around the United Kingdom when Averil sought medical help for the symptoms that had troubled her while away.

Cancer had spread beyond the hope of treatment, and she spent her last days at Arohanui Hospice for palliative care.

As an acknowledgement, hundreds of Cancer Society yellow daffodils were handed out to everyone who attended her funeral, an interdenominational service hosted by Father Marcus Francis, assisted by Methodist minister Bob Franklyn and hospital chaplain Sande Ramage.

Cycling friends provided a guard of honour with their helmets raised high.

Averil is survived by husband John, their three children and two grandchildren.

 - Stuff

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