During her long and distinguished career, Audrey Evans served as Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s chief of pediatric oncology, founder of the Children’s Cancer Center, and the developer of a disease classification system that is credited with reducing the fatality rate of a common childhood cancer by more than 50%.
More important, she was the type of doctor who allowed a frightened patient to bring a pet rabbit to radiation treatment. Who spent her own money on lodgings for the exhausted families of children under her care. Who was willing to visit the hospital kitchen in the middle of the night for a patient who wanted some chocolate cake.
Author Heidi Bright Butler remembers standing in her son Andrew’s hospital room in 1999 as Evans explained his fatal diagnosis. Andrew was 15 when he died in January 2000, about 10 months after doctors found he had neuroblastoma (a nerve cancer).
“I can still picture her sitting next to his bed and sketching on a napkin what was going on with his cells. I think he really appreciated how honest she was and that she talked to him like an adult,” Butler said. “It was painful for me as a parent who wants to protect her child, but I was also very impressed by the conversation. It stuck with me.”
Twenty years after watching that intimate bedside conversation, Butler has written and published Audrey Evans: Not Your Ordinary Doctor, a children’s book about the now-retired physician’s life and accomplishments.
Based on Evans’ own stories, the brightly illustrated book follows her growth from an often-naughty girl who struggled in school because of an undiagnosed learning disability to an accomplished doctor and researcher whose commitment to others led her to cofound Ronald McDonald House and the St. James School, a free, private middle school in North Philadelphia.
Butler, 69, of Easton, said she wants Evans’ story to inspire young readers.
“She struggled, but she was still able to accomplish great things,” said Butler, who is retired. “When I read the book to children, I tell them that when Audrey was little, people didn’t expect her to do important things. I ask what they think made her able to do that and they talk about how she tried hard and didn’t give up. That’s an important message.”
Evans, who will celebrate her 95th birthday in March, shared her personal tales during multiple meetings at her Rittenhouse home with Butler. She said she was flattered by Butler’s interest.
“I enjoyed (the interviews) because I’ve had a wonderful life,” Evans said. “I’ve done some interesting things and I’ve had a lot of people I cared for and a lot of people who cared for me.”
The book opens with an anecdote about 12-year-old Audrey mistakenly allowing a neighbor’s horse to run away. There are details about Evans’ childhood in England, living through World War II and spending almost a year in the hospital after contracting tuberculosis, an experience that informed her later work.
Young Audrey, Butler writes, struggled in school. Still she was determined to follow in her sister’s footsteps and become a doctor. After a teacher determined that Audrey did not retain information she’d read but she did remember things spoken aloud, Audrey hired a tutor who would read to her.
“I think that speaks to the power of perseverance, particularly to children with learning disabilities,” Butler said. “Like Audrey, they can learn to not let themselves be defined by their disability.”
The book includes Evans’ career and personal highlights – including working with cancer researcher Sidney Farber (known as the father of modern chemotherapy) and pioneering pediatric surgeon C. Everett Koop (and later U.S. surgeon general) as well as getting married at 79 to long-time love Giulio D’Angio.
There are also many kid-friendly anecdotes:
During one year of her residency, Evans, the only female in her cohort, needed to share the single bathroom with the male residents. Because the door had no lock, she’d sing loudly while bathing so they’d know not to come in. She had never heard of the Easter Bunny until a friend’s children kept asking when it would arrive. She didn’t know the Eagles were a Philadelphia football team until she partnered with the franchise to create the first Ronald McDonald House.
“It was hard to figure out which stories to put in the book because she had so many marvelous ones,” Butler said. “I thought about the children I was writing for and what would interest and inspire them.”
One story that was cut from the final manuscript inspired the book’s cover art, which shows Evans listening to a smiling girl’s heart while two hamsters peeked out from the pockets of Evans’ white lab coat. In real life, Evans often took a hamster named Tabitha along on her rounds at Boston Children’s Hospital, where she worked with Farber. Afraid he wouldn’t approve, she kept it hidden.
One evening, Evans was walking Farber to the elevator when Tabitha climbed up inside Evans’ sleeves and poked her head out from Evan’s collar. Farber never mentioned it.