In a black box theater on the Lower East Side, Dawn Aldrich, MD, PCS ’96, watched her life’s work unfold onstage.
During October rehearsals of her play, The Day That Changed My Life, short, tense scenes and monologues captured the horrific moments of people discovering that they or their loved ones have cancer—a disease that kills more than half a million Americans each year.
Aldrich is not a playwright. She’s not a director or a producer. She’s an oncologist who decided long ago not to practice medicine.
“You go into it and you realize you’re limited,” she said. “You can’t stray from the regimen. I wasn’t fulfilled.”
The loss of her otherwise-healthy father to colon cancer shook the Bronx native to her core, and she grew passionate about helping others cope with the disease. She founded the nonprofit Solutions Cancer Resource Center to support families in minority neighborhoods, hoping to bridge the gulf between the physicians’ lack of time and the patients’ urgent needs.
Originally published in a series of audio books, the vignettes in the play come from patients who wrote to Aldrich via the center’s Myspace page or shared their stories in person. Aldrich tells the story of a small child with cancer of the eyes, a workaholic mom who receives her diagnosis at the office and still rushes off to her son’s soccer game, and a minister struggling to make sense of the disease’s tragic toll. “What do I say to the child that’s lost a mother or the mother that’s lost a child?” he asks, begging for God’s intervention.
Joining Aldrich in the theater’s wings were her husband, Albert Aldrich, PCS ’96, and her stepdaughter Ashley Aldrich, FCRH ’08. Dawn and Albert met at Fordham and developed a close, lasting friendship. In 2007, it led them down the aisle. A former acting student, Albert directed the production, while Ashley adapted the vignettes into a stage play.
When she’s not at the center or out in the community, Dawn Aldrich is training for her new role with the Food and Drug Administration, which appointed her to a panel tasked with reviewing new medical instruments and drugs used to treat cancer. Meanwhile, she’s hoping for some good reviews of her own for her play, a labor of love.
The Day That Changed My Life ran for three nights in October 2011 at the Manhattan Movement & Arts Center on West 60th Street.