Mother of two Verena Fletcher's life taken by asthma attack
THIS is the story of a young woman's life cut short by a sudden, severe asthma attack.
The life of a woman who was raising two daughters with her husband, who ran two coffee shops, and who was heavily involved with her school, business and church communities.
It is also the story of how those communities wrapped their arms around a family dealing with the shock of losing the rock of their lives.
It started on an ordinary Tuesday, when Verena Fletcher, 39, started experiencing some of the asthma symptoms familiar to her throughout her whole life - mild shortness of breath, mild wheezing.
Verena, who was born and raised in Bundaberg but later moved to Hervey Bay, had an asthma management plan and she followed it that day.
But as dusk fell - a time of day that was often a trigger point for her sensitive airways - it all went horribly wrong.
"She had symptoms during the day, they were under control - and then all of a sudden they weren't, and she had the attack," husband Gavin said.
Despite Verena being rushed to hospital, her chest was so tight it took medical staff 30 minutes to revive her. She had lost oxygen for far too long.
For more than a week she lay in an induced coma. (continued below image)
Respect asthma, victim's husband warns
ASTHMA affects about one in 10 Australians - about two million people.
People suffering from the condition have sensitive airways in their lungs that react to certain triggers that set off their asthma. This makes it harder for them to breathe.
While many can manage the condition with a doctor's help, Gavin said it worried him that many people didn't really understand asthma or how serious it could be.
"Most people think a puffer is a solution - it's not," he said.
"Verena spent most of her life on steroids and other medication. Hers was one of the worst kinds of cases, but she managed it for 39 years.
"But I suppose I just want to say to parents: that wheeziness in your kids after they've played a bit of sport, don't be blase about it. "If your kids have asthma symptoms, take them to a doctor and get it checked out.
"And if you do have asthma, make sure you manage it and respect it. It can kill you."
For more information about the condition, go to www.asthmaaustralia. org.au. If you're worried about asthma symptoms, consult your general practitioner.
Eventually, on September 10, doctors felt her body's vital signs were as good as they could be, and they decided to take her off the ventilator to give her the chance to breathe on her own.
Before this process started, her two daughters, Brahe, 11, and Lara, 10, shared what would be their last words with her.
"There was a time when I think the girls thought she would wake up and it would be okay," Gavin said.
"But the time came when I had to tell them their mum wasn't going to make it and that they needed to have their final conversation with her to say goodbye.
"And I can tell you that, as a father, that was the most excruciating thing I've ever had to do."
But once off the ventilator, it became clear Verena's body had been through too much already.
"(Doctors) realised straight away that she wasn't going to be able to sustain it," Gavin said.
Verena continued her brave fight for several hours before she eventually slipped away, surrounded by her husband, father and sister.
Gavin said as heart-wrenching as the process was, he was hugely grateful to the medical staff at Hervey Bay Hospital's intensive care unit, who spoke to them compassionately and without jargon, and who gave his wife the best possible care.
Verena was laid to rest on September 16, with a funeral at Bundaberg's Apostolic Church and a burial following at the Bundaberg General Cemetery.
Hundreds of people packed the Ashfield Rd church, where they remembered a vivacious, generous, kind and humble woman who always worked hard - sometimes several jobs at a time - and who always dreamed of running her own business.
That dream came true when she and Gavin bought and began operating a motel in Gladstone in 2003, before relocating to Hervey Bay in 2007 to start a Coffee Club franchise at Eli Waters.
"Verena really loved Hervey Bay," her husband said.
"She thought it was a great place to run a business and a great place to raise children, and she was interested in the idea of running for council down the track because she genuinely believed in the betterment of the place."
The Fletchers opened a second Coffee Club last year at the extended Stockland shopping centre, and Verena kept up other commitments with her daughters' school Parents and Friends Association, the Hervey Bay Chamber of Commerce and the local Apostolic Church.
The patrons of the coffee shops were among the many people to be shocked at Verena's sudden and tragic loss, and for weeks the cafes burst with flowers from customers who had been touched by the good-natured owner.
Gavin, who works separately from the cafe franchises at Wide Bay Motor Group, said he began to realise the impact his wife had had on so many people.
"A smile can say so much," he said.
"She was just one of those people who would do anything to help anyone, no questions asked.
"And she was the best mum. Family meant everything to her."
Something else extraordinary happened too. Gavin and his daughters were surrounded with love and support from unexpected places.
"Star of the Sea school, where both girls go, were really quick to lend us emotional support, counselling for the girls - and they cooked us meals for weeks. I don't know where all the food came from, but it just arrived," Gavin said.
"The principal, Nathan Wilson, rang us all the time. He wanted us to know he was there and so was the school community."
The Coffee Club's state head office sent someone in to oversee the cafes for a little while and help them to run on their own, while Gavin's own employer lent cars left, right and centre to family flying in for the funeral.
"It was all the little things. It just makes you realise how great it is to live in a small community," Gavin said.
"If we'd been living in Brisbane and this had happened, I don't think we would have been supported in the same way. I'm still getting about four or five cards a day.
"Verena really believed in Hervey Bay. So I think it would have made her happy to see the amazing support we've received since she's passed."