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Dr. Audrey Evans Has Changed Lives on the Main Line and Beyond

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Photos by Tessa Marie Images

A Villanova-born producer brings the extraordinary life of pioneering oncologist Dr. Audrey Evans to the big screen.

Julia Fisher Farbman’s first significant memory of Dr. Audrey Evans dates to a bout with appendicitis. Evans, a family friend and the first female chief of pediatric oncology at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, personally greeted the young patient, ushering her into surgery. “I saw Audrey, and I could feel the calm,” says the Villanova native. “I knew it was all going to be OK in my 10- or 11-year-old brain. The doctors got it out, then I asked for a McDonald’s cheeseburger.”

Evans, 97, began revolutionizing cancer care for children in the 1970s. Her work as the co-founder of Ronald McDonald House Charities has dovetailed with her pioneering role as the first woman of oncology—and perhaps the nation’s most significant female physician. “I was a woman in the world of men. I had to be wise, tactful and thoughtful,” says Evans, who retired at 84, five years after marrying her colleague Dr. Giulio John D’Angio.

Born in England, Evans came to Philadelphia in 1970, and the rest is history—a history Farbman is celebrating in her first scripted biographical feature film, Audrey’s Children, due sometime next year. “She’s like another grandmother to me, but she’s also my hero and an absolute icon,” says the Shipley School alum. “While writing, I enjoyed being in her head.”

In 1970, 90 percent of children with neuroblastoma, the most common tumor in pediatric cancer, were dying. Treatments were ineffective, and those that worked often caused irreparable damage. Enter Evans. Brilliant, British and ballsy, she tackled flawed, static treatments to overhaul blanket treatment methods, uncovering a groundbreaking way to save children’s lives. Well ahead of its time, the Evans Staging System was the genesis of what’s now a 75–80% survival rate for neuroblastoma patients.

“When I told Audrey I wanted to write a movie about her life, her first reaction was, ‘Why on earth would anyone want to watch my life—what a bore!’” recalls Farbman. “Then, it went to, ‘When are we going to the Oscars. What will I wear and who will chaperone me?’ She wants a handsome man to walk her in. She has a list at this point, so others need to get in line.”

Farbman will also co-produce the movie, with Ami Canaan Mann directing. Filming is slated to start around Philadelphia in August, and casting is in the works now. “Think top female British actors in their 40s, and you can assume who we’re going to,” Farbman says.

Audrey Evans

Julia Fisher Farbman with her real-life inspiration, Dr. Audrey Evans. Photo by Tessa Marie Images

At 32, Farbman is no newcomer to the industry, having worked in production for over a decade. Recently, she produced the Emmy-nominated Celebrate Equality: The Future of Women’s Rights. She also co-created, hosted and executive-produced Modern Hero, an award-winning Amazon series featuring female role models like Michelle Obama and Evans. The latter’s segment accumulated 17 million hits. “On a deep level, her story resonated with people in a way I hadn’t seen before,” she says. “The comments were amazing: I’m alive because of Audrey; I’m staying at a Ronald McDonald House now, and my kid is alive.”

Without a doubt, the film covers sensitive subject matter. Young cancer patients die. Sobbing parents hurl themselves on the hospital floor. “It’s been a hard space to live in these four years,” says Farbman. “I have the utmost respect for all doctors who do this, and nothing but love and heartbreak for the families. So many were so gracious in telling me their worst nightmares.”

While Farbman’s father was a radiation oncologist, science wasn’t her strong suit. Through writing the Audrey’s Children screenplay, she got a crash course in the medical profession, circa 1970. Her exhaustive research led to “a Bible of Audrey,” amounting to hundreds of pages. She also applied to a New York University graduate film program, taking seven courses to help lay the technical foundation.

To date, the script has been rewritten 100 times. It wasn’t until a mid-winter purging and 80-page rewrite that she was satisfied. “This is the one that’s supposed to be on screen—the story of Audrey and the kids,” Farbman says.

Graduating with a communications degree from Drexel University in 2012, Farbman began interning at 6abc while in school. She worked for the Disney-ABC Television Group as a producer until 2015. Now, as CEO of Julie Grace Entertainment, she’s a writer, producer and marketer. Beyond equity investors, the seven-figure Audrey’s Children has taken an interesting combined fundraising approach, teaming with Ronald McDonald House Charities as a grant partner. “Timing is everything, and now is the time to tell Dr. Evans’ story,” says Philadelphia Region CEO Susan Campbell. “This is an individual who truly changed the world—one who was not only committed to the care of children but also understood that a sick child is a sick family.”

The Greater Philadelphia Film Office also helped the project qualify for a difficult-to-get Pennsylvania Film Tax Credit incentive, making it eligible for reimbursement of 25 percent of qualified production costs. “This is a true-life story that’s so Philadelphia-centric,” says Sharon Pinkenson, executive director of the Philly Film Office. “This is a heart-thumper for Philadelphia.”

And not so deep down, Audrey Evans knows it. “I can’t wait to see this movie,” says Evans, who never had any children of her own. “It’s taken work—like my life has.”

Visit audreyschildren.com

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