Amateur rider and longtime horse-sports supporter Dr. Audrey Evans is a giant in the world of pediatric oncology
By Amber Heintzberger
Reprinted from the July/August 2021 issue of USDF Connection magazine
She never had children of her own, but the world-renowned pediatric oncologist Dr. Audrey Evans is beloved by countless young cancer patients and their families.
The English-born Evans, 96, for two decades led the Division of Oncology at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP). She developed the Evans Staging System for neuroblastoma, which is credited with reducing fatality rates by more than 50%. She’s also celebrated for her work in helping to grow the Center for Childhood Cancer Research at CHOP into a world leader in patient care and research.
Evans is also the co-founder of the original Ronald McDonald House, now a global charitable network that provides assistance and housing to families of children undergoing cancer treatment and other hospital care; and founder of the St. James School, a free, private middle school in north Philadelphia aimed at disadvantaged youth. She also happens to be a longtime rider and supporter of equestrian sports.
A Life in Medicine
Born in York, England in 1925, Evans survived both World War II and a bout of tuberculosis at age 12 that resulted in a six-month hospital stay. Her parents encouraged her to get an education, and she overcame a learning disability to follow her dreams of becoming a doctor. She studied at the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh, Scotland, and then in 1953 she arrived in the US on a Fulbright Fellowship to continue her education, first at Boston Children’s Hospital and then at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. She completed her residency—the only woman among the male doctors—at the Royal Infirmary Teaching Hospital in England before returning to Boston Children’s Hospital.
In 1969, after Evans had been working at the University of Chicago for several years, pediatric surgeon and future US Surgeon General Dr. C. Everett Koop invited her to open a children’s oncology program in Philadelphia, where she still lives today. It was there that she rekindled her youthful passion for horses, seeking peace and enjoyment away from the rigors of the hospital and her demanding career.
Rider, Owner, Sponsor, Supporter
Evans’ introduction to horses as a child in England consisted of borrowing a local deliveryman’s cart pony to ride around the countryside. But she put her equestrian pursuits on hold for a couple of decades to focus on academics and her budding career.
When Evans settled in Philadelphia, she discovered that the city is not too far from some of America’s most celebrated horse country: Pennsylvania’s Chester County, home to the famed Devon Horse Show grounds and to well-established foxhunting and eventing communities, among others. She began riding with the late Susie Buchanan, a fellow British expat who was active in dressage, driving, Pony Club, and other equestrian pursuits at her Mercer Hill Farm in Coatesville.
Later Evans began riding at Olympian and now-retired FEI dressage judge Jessica Ransehousen’s Blue Hill Farm in nearby Unionville. Evans took lessons from Ransehousen’s then assistant trainer, Todd Flettrich (who would go on to represent the US at the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games). When Flettrich established his own training and teaching business at a nearby facility in the late 1990s, Evans followed. She clearly relished her time out of the spotlight and was an unassuming presence at the farm, making the two-hour round trip periodically to take lessons on Robin Hood, a teenaged gelding owned by Evans’ friend the late Gladys Miller. Evans especially delighted in riding “Robin’s” favorite movement, the flying change.
Evans’ involvement in the equestrian world extended well beyond her own riding. As she recounted to the equestrian-lifestyle magazine Untacked in 2017, over the years she owned horses for Flettrich as well as for top eventing riders Marcia Kulak and Phillip Dutton. One of Kulak’s upper-level event horses, Chagall, eventually became Evans’ dressage mount.
Dutton called it “an honor and a privilege to be a very small part of Audrey’s equestrian pursuits. During her lifetime she has made such a huge difference to so many people, from many walks of life: in her medical work, her dedication to various charities, her commitment to her church, and also the equestrian world. Her love of horses and her interest in riding adds to her being an amazing human being.”
Horses owned by Evans competed at the Rolex Kentucky and Badminton CCI5* events. The Thoroughbred Dusky Moon, originally ridden by Dutton, was sold to Dutch rider Eddy Stibbe, who took him to the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens.
Evans was also active with her local USDF group-member organization (GMO), the Delaware Valley Combined Training Association. In 1975, the Dressage at Devon show—which at the time was run by the DVCTA—moved to its current location at the Devon Horse Show grounds. Local riding instructor Sidley Payne had a son who had leukemia, and Payne and then DVCTA president Sally McCawley approached Evans to explore the idea of presenting Dressage at Devon as a fund-raiser for the Center for Childhood Cancer Research at CHOP.
According to the show’s media kit, “As a result, a wonderful 10-year relationship was begun. More than 250 hospital volunteers, most of whom were parents and families of the children being treated at CHOP, sold programs, served as ushers, operated and staffed the Souvenir Shoppe, the food booths and the Deli, the Wine and Cheese Café, the Beer Garden, the ticket gates, and the parking areas. It was inspiring to see oncology doctors volunteering and working alongside the families and patients they were treating.”
In 2006, Evans’ involvement with Dressage at Devon came full circle. Having become The Dressage Foundation’s Century Club pair #36—achieved through the riding of a dressage test by a horse-and-rider pair whose combined age is 100 or greater—earlier that year, her accomplishment and her many years of service to the show and its beneficiary were honored at that year’s Dressage at Devon. Under the Saturday night lights before the Grand Prix Freestyle, Evans, then 81, and her Century Club partner, Robin Hood, then 24, took a sedate lap around the Dixon Oval and received an ovation and a bouquet of red roses.
Not Clowning Around: The Ronald McDonald House
The burger behemoth’s red-haired mascot got the naming rights to the Ronald McDonald House, but Evans played an instrumental role in securing the sponsorship that made the charity happen.
After experiencing her own extended hospital stay in her younger years and then watching families struggle to pay for nearby lodging while their children with cancer were treated at CHOP, in 1974 Evans co-founded the original Ronald McDonald House, in Philadelphia. She also played a part in establishing the Ronald McDonald House Charities, whose programs now provide assistance for families worldwide, including more than 375 Ronald McDonald Houses.
Ohio mother of three Kimberly Wyse learned firsthand the importance of the Ronald McDonald safety nets when her son was born in 2017 with major medical complications.
“We were in shock,” Wyse said. “Our baby was transferred to a NICU that was far from our home, and I had packed an overnight bag with no idea about where I’d stay. A kind nurse set everything up for us, and I rolled in less than 48 hours post C-section, bleary-eyed and scared.”
Wyse and her family ended up staying in a Ronald McDonald House for about a month.
“The staff made sure I’d had something to eat, showed us to a beautifully appointed room, and made us feel at home,” Wyse recalled. “They provided breakfast and dinner every day, and I had a place to go for a reprieve from the constant alarms going off in my son’s room. We had a room large enough to accommodate our entire family, including a private bathroom and plenty of amenities. And they did it all for free. We’ve stayed there a number of times since then for our son’s various hospitalizations and surgeries. We never imagined that we would need this type of charity, but it made an enormous difference in our lives.”
Doing Things Her Way
Some people worry they’re never going to get married if they’re not hitched by their thirties. Evans wed for the first time in 2005, at age 79.
The groom was her longtime friend and colleague Dr. Giulio “Dan” D’Angio. It was a “working wedding”: The couple were married at 7:00 a.m., celebrated with a quick breakfast at a café, and made it to work at the hospital by 8:00 a.m. D’Angio, a professor emeritus of radiation oncology at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, died in 2018 at the age of 96.
When she retired at age 84, Evans fell into a depression and found that she needed a new focus. She has long been involved in her church, and she continued to be concerned for the welfare of children. Along with Rev. Sean Mullens of Saint Mark’s Episcopal Church in north Philadelphia, Evans co-founded the faith-based St. James School in 2011.
The school provides an education and a safe space for children living in poverty. As Evans told Untacked, “A good education is how you get along in the world. It’s the reason I had the life I did. Although I retired from medicine, I still had the ability to do something that could benefit humanity.”
Recognition in Print and on Screen
For her extraordinary contributions to medicine and toward improving the lives of patients and their families, Evans has been recognized in newspaper and magazine articles, books, and even in film. (She even has her own Wikipedia entry.) She is the subject of a 2017 episode of the documentary series Modern Hero, about remarkable women and their achievements, available for streaming on platforms including Amazon Prime Video.
In 2019, author Heidi Bright Butler and illustrator Joyeeta Neogi published the children’s picture book Audrey Evans: Not Your Ordinary Doctor. Butler’s son, Andrew, was a patient of Evans’ in 1999 and 2000 before he died of neuroblastoma. In the book, Butler recounts the many ways that Evans sought to cheer her young patients, from allowing families to bring pets to the hospital to handing out treats. When Evans worked at Boston University, Butler said, she even took a pet hamster named Tabitha on her rounds to bring smiles to her patients.
In a 2020 interview, Butler told The Philadelphia Inquirer: “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.”
A feature film about Evans, Audrey’s Children, by writer/producer Julia Fisher Farbman, is currently in development.
A Wonderful Life
Evans will undoubtedly be remembered primarily as a titan in medicine and for her philanthropic achievements, but the equestrian community is fiercely proud to be able to claim her, as well. Dr. Evans has pursued excellence in many forms, and she has done so with compassion for people and for animals, changing countless lives for the better.
Amber Heintzberger grew up riding and competing and has traveled the world thanks to horses and equine journalism. She works as a freelancer writer, photographer, and author and lives in South Orange, New Jersey, with her family and a new “pandemic puppy.”