Some of the guests at Dr. Audrey Evans' 90th birthday party at the Union League last week were talking about her next act.
Not that she needs one. In those nine decades, Evans has served as chief of pediatric oncology at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, founded the Children's Cancer Research Center, and developed a system of classifying a common childhood cancer that is credited with reducing its fatality rates by more than 50 percent.
She also cofounded Ronald McDonald House in 1974, watching it grow into a network of 300 homes in 57 countries that provide low-cost shelter for the families of children undergoing medical treatments far from home.
After retiring from her medical practice in 2009, Evans partnered with a local Episcopal church leader to transform a closed church in a depressed part of North Philadelphia into a free, private middle school - St. James School - with a 5-1 student-teacher ratio.
Those are only a few of her professional accomplishments. The list of personal ones is also formidable.
But while it is impressive, such a list seems cold. Here are some of the human stories behind her achievements:
In a video shown at the party, Evans remembered the little girl who had come for her radiation therapy one day with her pet rabbit in a small carrier. She asked Evans if she could bring her pet to her treatment. "Of course you can take your bunny," Evans recalled, her slight accent revealing her origins in York, England.
As Evans tells it, the other hospital personnel were gape-mouthed as this child removed her rabbit from its carrier and placed it on the treatment table. "The bunny's come to have its therapy now," Evans told them without a pause. The girl pretended the animal was being treated, then tucked it back into its carrier when she'd decided it was done. She then climbed onto the table and lifted her shirt so her own treatment could begin.
"That's how you give radiation therapy," Evans told her colleagues.
The Rev. Sean Mullen, rector of St. Mark's Church in Center City and the St. James School cofounder, recounted how Evans responded when a young patient asked what heaven would be like. Would there be flowers? Yes, Evans told her.
"It's possible she's wrong," Mullen said to the birthday-party crowd while Evans, sitting in a chair in front of his lectern, closed her eyes and shook her head. "But it's unlikely."
Evans' partner of 50 years and husband for the last 10, Giulio D'Angio, told the gathering that for Evans, "helping others is in her chromosomes." He spoke of the many times she would make an after-hours visit at a patient's home. She would send the child's exhausted parents to bed. The good doctor would be on watch until morning.
So many stories: How Evans used her personal credit card to pay for hotels for her patients' families before Ronald McDonald House was created. How she told Mullen that opening a school was such a good idea that she'd be willing to sharpen pencils and make copies if it would advance the work. How even her "gift registry" for this 90th birthday celebration was all about helping others: $250 would provide multiple turkey meatloaf lunches, an Evans favorite, for St. James students; $500 would go toward heating the school's church for weekly Masses; $50 would buy science materials; and $25 would help purchase library books.
And then the photos: Of Evans through the decades hugging patients. Of Evans holding one edge of a giant parachute for children to play under when the church and campus of St. James, locked and left empty in 2006, reopened with summer programs in 2009. Of Evans in the school, itself, arms around uniformed, smiling students.
And then Evans, at her own party, sitting rapt and listening as the St. James choir sang "Happy Birthday." Evans, taking an exaggeratedly large breath to blow out two candles, a "9" and a "0." Evans stepping up to the lectern and addressing her many fans, thanking them for donating more than $200,000 to the school.
"The party has been so successful, I think we should do it again for my 91st birthday," she said.
During Monday's party, I introduced myself to Evans and asked if that day, June 8, was her actual birthday. A close friend also had a birthday that day, I told her, but she was turning 45, the same age I am. We were both, I noted, halfway to Evans' milestone, but we had a lot to do before then to be as honored as she.
Evans smiled and said her actual birthday was March 6, "so I'm actually older than 90." The festivities, public and private, had been going on for months.
Evans deserves to be celebrated. Like the guests at her party, I'm wondering what she'll do in her next decade.
Natalie Pompilio is a Philadelphia writer.