They called Eileen O'Neill a compassionate, dedicated doctor, and the glue that unified her scattered family and kept alive her 82-year-old mother.
What no one could explain - O'Neill included - was why she worked 15 years without getting a medical license, the last nine in the now-notorious West Philadelphia clinic of Kermit Gosnell.
Common Pleas Court Judge Jeffrey P. Minehart was mystified even as he sentenced O'Neill on Monday to six to 23 months of house arrest on fraud and conspiracy charges involving her work as an unlicensed physician at Gosnell's Women's Medical Society.
"One aspect of this case that stunned me was how someone with as much education as you could stay in this place . . . and not be shocked and at least call the authorities," Minehart told O'Neill, 56.
At trial, witnesses testified about an unsanitary clinic where Gosnell performed illegal late-term abortions and trafficked in prescriptions for narcotics while O'Neill handled the family practice.
Gosnell was able to manipulate poor women, some with mental illness or uneducated, to work for cash and assist in medical procedures though they had no training.
At trial, O'Neill's lawyer said she worked there because Gosnell promised to help her obtain a medical license in Pennsylvania.
O'Neill, however, mentioned none of that before the judge sentenced her.
"I loved all my patients," O'Neill said, referring to the mostly aged people she saw at Gosnell's clinic. "All I wanted to do is take good care of them. . . . I thought I was there for a reason, filling in the gaps."
Minehart made it clear O'Neill would have gone to prison were she not sole caretaker for her seriously ill mother, Corrine White, with whom she lives in Phoenixville.
"You have to serve some form of punishment, but I don't think it has to be at the expense of your mother," Minehart said.
Minehart also ordered O'Neill to do 100 hours of community service in any area except medicine. She will serve two years' probation after house arrest.
Corrine White, called to testify by defense attorney James Berardinelli, was one of eight witnesses. White said she has balance problems, and in court she moved using a walker, supported by two sons. Her left wrist was bandaged, and bruises covered her left forearm.
Imprisoning O'Neill "will kill me," White told Minehart. "In two weeks or so I would be dead. I can't live without her."
In May, a Philadelphia jury found O'Neill guilty of two counts of theft by deception and two counts of conspiracy involving her work at Gosnell's clinic.
The jury found Gosnell guilty of three counts of first-degree murder for killing infants born alive during abortion procedures and one count of third-degree murder in the death of an abortion patient given too much sedative by an untrained staffer. Gosnell, 72, is serving three consecutive life terms.
O'Neill was one of nine employees charged with Gosnell in the clinic's operation but the only one to go to trial with Gosnell; the others pleaded guilty.
Berardinelli told Minehart that O'Neill spent 52 days in prison after she was arrested in early 2011. He said O'Neill's conviction meant she would never work as a doctor: "I don't know what purpose, seriously, incarceration would have."
Assistant District Attorney Joanne Pescatore argued for confinement within the recommended state guideline range of six to 14 months but did not object to house arrest.
Pescatore said she was "sick and tired" of O'Neill "playing the victim."
"She knew what she was doing, and she knew what was going on in that place," Pescatore argued. "How could you not know what was going on there? You'd have to be deaf, dumb, blind, and stupid."