Skilled surgeon and mentor, beloved by patients
By Kate N. Grossman January 27, 2014 5:06PM
Updated: February 28, 2014 6:07AM
Richard Harvey Evans was the kind of surgeon everyone wanted in their lives.
Meticulous and highly skilled, yet also modest and compassionate, Dr. Evans had young doctors flocking to his operating room to learn, veteran doctors seeking his care for their loved ones and scores of patients singing his praises.
“I have known no surgeon in whom I have had more confidence than in Richard,” said Dr. John R. Benfield, Dr. Evans’ longtime friend and an emeritus professor of surgery at UCLA. “His intellectual honesty, intuition, compassion, skill, good judgment and genuine concern for his patients were striking. . . . Richard was the kind of doctor that I hope we can continue to educate in today’s different world.”
Dr. Evans, a cardiothoracic surgeon and head of surgery at the former Michael Reese Hospital, died on Jan. 19 of cancer and heart disease. He was 78.
Raised in Rogers Park by a Polish immigrant father who worked as a shoe salesman and a homemaker mother,
Dr. Evans graduated Senn High School after just two years. Popular and the center of neighborhood social life, the constant refrain was ‘Richie, what you doing?’ a lifelong friend recalled.
At 16 years old, Dr. Evans came to the University of Chicago to study English and never left.
He stayed at the university for medical school, ascended to chief resident and even met his wife, Roberta, at a coffee shop on campus. The couple raised their three children in Hyde Park.
Before building his career at Michael Reese, Dr. Evans spent two years as an Air Force surgeon, treating wounded soldiers from Vietnam. In his early days at Michael Reese, he also worked part time as a Cook County coroner, seeking a way to give dignity to those who died violently or in poverty.
At Michael Reese, he was considered a master in the operating room and a kind and skilled mentor. His practice focused on cardiothoracic and thyroid surgery and, over the years, he trained hundreds of doctors.
Deeply devoted to his patients, he would never turn anyone away who couldn’t pay and would not let a day go by without visiting each of his patients still in the hospital, said one of his daughters, Elizabeth Evans.
“He made a one-on-one connection with all of them,” she said. “They all thought they were getting his exclusive attention even though he could be seeing six or seven patients a day. They thought they were Dad’s only patient. . . . He was so invested and they were deeply grateful.”
Outside of work, Dr. Evans was known for his intellectual curiosity and breadth of knowledge and interests, including art, history, music and theater. Reading materials littered his home, from biographies and newspapers to medical journals and scientific publications. He was, his daughter said, a “true example of a lifelong learner.”
Gentle, even-keeled and introspective, Dr. Evans also had a great sense of humor, particularly “PG versions of dirty jokes,” his daughter said. He watched Monty Python religiously every Sunday evening.
A perfect day for Dr. Evans featured time tinkering with gadgets and electronics, a trip to a hardware store, a meal at a diner or deli, reading and a stretch outside.
A loving father and husband, Dr. Evans lost his only son, Michael, to colon cancer in 2004. It was a loss, Benfield said, that “was a heavy burden to his dying day.”
While Michael Evans was sick, his father’s “rock solid” personality was “reassuring to Michael and all of us” his daughter said.
“He felt terrible,” she added, “but he was able to keep it together for everyone.”
Dr. Evans is survived by his wife, Roberta, his daughters Elizabeth and Susan Evans, daughter-in-law BethAnne Jacob and five grandchildren. The funeral was Tuesday.