By Elizabeth Fisher

Special to The CS&T

PHILADELPHIA – The last decade of the 20th century took a toll on Helene Neville. In 1991, she underwent treatment for lymphoma. Then the cancer spread to her brain. By 1997, the Havertown native who now resides in Phoenix, Ariz., had endured three brain operations.

As a nurse, Neville knew the odds of survival. But survive she did and, not content to kick back and enjoy a quiet life, the 50-year-old nurse started running. Seriously running.

She just completed a 2,500-mile trot from California to Florida. Starting May 1, Neville got up early every morning, donned her running shoes, ate her carbs – the recommended diet for such strenuous exercise – and took to the highways and deserts, the small towns and the cities that stretch across the continent. She wanted to make a point.

Well, maybe a few points: promote nutrition because a balanced diet increases brain power, demonstrate the importance of exercise to maintain health and to promote her book, “Nurses in Shape, the Right Dose.”

Naturally, she wants the book to sell, but not for her own profit. Proceeds from the sales will go to St. Francis de Sales School in Philadelphia. Neville’s late mother, Maryellen Rouse Neifert, was a 1947 graduate of the school. And it was in the school’s auditorium where Neville held a press conference and rally Sept. 13.

Naturally, Neville and the St. Francis de Sales track team joined forces for a trot around 47th Street prior to the event.

“I’ve stopped at many schools and hospitals along the way promoting nutrition,” Neville said. “Good nutrition wakes the brain up and exercise keeps you fit.” Neville ran about 25 miles a day for 93 days, despite scorching heat.

“It was a force bigger than me that made me go, kept me going,” she said.

While introducing Neville to the students, the school principal, Sister Mary McNulty, I.H.M., recalled St. Paul’s admonition to the Church in Corinth to “run the race as if to win,” and called Neville a reflection of the light cast by her mother.

Neville’s mother donated to St. Francis de Sales all of her adult life.

Neville was not alone in her determination to overcome adversity. Donald Arthur, who befriended Neville about 10 years ago, drove down from the Bronx, N.Y., to attend the rally. Arthur, 66, received a heart transplant in 1996 and has since run 35 marathons.

Arthur’s new heart came from 25-year-old murder victim Fitzgerald Gittens, and Arthur said that Gittens’ brother, Mac Andrews, ran alongside him during one of those events. Arthur said he runs to honor his donor and to call attention to the need for people to donate blood, tissue and bone marrow.

“I’ve known Helene for many years. She’s a very good friend and very courageous,” Arthur said.

Corey Burton, 12, said that he’ll long remember Neville’s visit.

“She’s brave and strong, and she’s given so much courage to people. I think many will follow her example,” the St. Francis de Sales sixth-grader said.

Elizabeth Fisher is a freelance journalist and member of St. Mark Parish in Bristol.