A Publication of WTVP

Introducing Mark Plunkett & The Heartmenders

by Nick Vlahos |
Dr. Mark Plunkett, second from right, and his band
Dr. Mark Plunkett, second from right, and his band

Peoria cardiac surgeon Mark Plunkett relaxes outside the operating room by channeling his inner Ringo

Dr. Mark Plunkett knows a few things about beats — from the heart and from the soul.

Plunkett is chief of pediatric and congenital heart surgery at OSF Children’s Hospital of Illinois in Peoria. He is co-director of the Congenital Heart Center at the Children’s Hospital and OSF HealthCare Saint Francis Medical Center. He also is a professor of cardiac surgery at the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Peoria.

In other words, it appears Plunkett knows what he’s doing in his chosen field of medicine. But it also appears he knows what he’s doing in his avocation. So say those who have heard him play the drums.

Dr. Plunkett taking a practice break (photo by Ron Johnson)

“He’s great,” said Dr. Lew Schwartz, a Chicago-area vascular surgeon and medical professor. “He keeps a good beat, doesn’t make things too complicated and lets the audience dance.”

Scalpel by day, drumsticks by night

On rhythm guitar, Schwartz joins drummer Plunkett in a band that performs three or four times a year at charity events, mostly in the Peoria area. It’s the most recent incarnation of a group the two first formed when they were surgical residents some 30 years ago at Duke University Medical Center in North Carolina.

“By day, we were learning surgery,” Plunkett said. “When we had time at night, we were playing the venues and bars in Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill in a rock band.”

The Research Triangle area is where Plunkett first took up the drums, while he was attending medical school at the University of North Carolina. These days, Mark Plunkett & The Heartmenders specializes in rock and roll from the 1960s through the ‘80s.

“Everything from Elvis and the Beatles to Tom Petty and Talking Heads,” Plunkett said.

Schwartz and Plunkett fill the other band spots — lead guitars, bass guitar and keyboards — with professional musicians from the Chicago area. Schwartz knows them from years of gigging on the side.

Playing for fun, charity, therapy

The Heartmenders are scheduled to headline the 2023 Peoria Heart Ball, an American Heart Association fundraiser. It’s to be held from 6 to 10 p.m. April 22 at Par-A-Dice Hotel in East Peoria.

The music promotes a good cause, but it also might provide good therapy for the band’s amateur players. That’s part of the reason Plunkett keeps a drum kit in the basement of his house and a drum pad in his medical center office.

“Every time I have a down moment, I keep my wrists moving,” he said. “It’s an absolute escape. Because not only do you get a great workout and it relieves tension, but when you’re in the music and playing drums in a song, you really can’t be thinking of anything else. You’ve really got to stay in the music.”

A turbulent start

Considering Plunkett’s upbringing, becoming a heart surgeon someday might have seemed an impossible dream.

Born in Indiana and reared on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, Plunkett, now 63, was placed in foster care when he was about 5. From then until he was 17, he lived with Harry and Violet Spayde.

“I had a wonderful relationship with them. During my childhood, they were my mom and dad,” said Plunkett, who later reconnected with his birth parents.

Plunkett suggested his foster-care youth is part of the reason he joined the board of CASA of the Tenth Judicial Circuit. The volunteer organization advocates for abused or neglected children who are in the court system in Marshall, Peoria, Putnam, Stark and Tazewell counties.

When Plunkett first expressed interest in medicine as a career, Violet Spayde wrote his birth mother’s aunt and uncle, Clarence and Mabel Nordstrom, in North Carolina and asked if they could help. The Nordstroms invited Plunkett to live with them for his senior year of high school.

That led to an undergraduate scholarship and other financial aid from Duke, where Plunkett enrolled in 1978.

“It was a very pivotal year in my life, and it certainly led to some great things,” he said.

A mentor emerges

Peoria came into Plunkett’s picture in 1996 as he completed additional training at UCLA Medical Center. Plunkett was looking for a senior surgeon who could be his mentor and who was on the cutting edge in congenital heart surgery. He found Dr. Dale Geiss, who in 1980 established the congenital cardiovascular surgery program at what then was known as St. Francis Children’s Hospital.

In 1999, UCLA recruited Plunkett to return to the West Coast. From there, he moved to the universities of Kentucky and Minnesota. But in 2014, as Geiss, began to step back from his practice, local hospital officials asked Plunkett to consider a second Peoria stint.

“I was just blown away by the new Children’s Hospital that had been constructed in my absence,” Plunkett said. “I decided this would be a wonderful opportunity to pick up where Dr. Geiss left off.

“The more I’ve become involved in the community here, the more I’ve sort of embraced it.”

A meaningful career

Plunkett’s work involves complex heart operations on newborns and on older children who have congenital defects, as well as adults. It’s highly specialized. Plunkett is one of about 160 heart surgeons in the country who are board certified in pediatric and congenital surgery.

“Adult vascular surgery is all about patients who are older and lived full lives,” Schwartz said. “To operate on babies and infants, there’s a lot more at stake. He handles it very well and always has. He doesn’t complain about how difficult it is, but from where I’m sitting, it looks very difficult.”

Congenital Heart Center Co-Director Dr. Mark Knepp said Plunkett has about 150 patients. But those patients require a lot of attention, which Plunkett provides.

“He takes great care of our patients,” said Knepp, a native of nearby Roanoke. “He loves them very much. When he takes on a patient, they become almost part of his family. He makes friends with everyone. People like Mark wherever he’s at.”

That includes on stage.

A fulfilling hobby

Schwartz said it’s not uncommon for surgeons to have passions outside the operating theater. Sometimes it’s golf. Sometimes it’s art. In Plunkett’s case, it’s music.

“Being an accomplished musician is a great skill set to have,” said Dr. Chuck Aprahamian, the Children’s Hospital surgeon-in-chief. “It’s another technically demanding thing. You can focus on something technically demanding, but the consequences of missing a beat aren’t like operating on anybody.

“It’s a way to keep that challenge without the total stress.”

The biggest challenge for Plunkett’s upcoming efforts at the Par-A-Dice might involve the band’s set list. Unsurprisingly for a drummer, perhaps, Plunkett likes it uptempo.

Plunkett performed “I Saw Her Standing There” for his wife, Tara, at their wedding reception. “Devil with a Blue Dress On” is another Heartmenders standard.

On occasion, Plunkett also has been known to sing. “My Girl” and “Secret Agent Man” are favorites, he said. But his longtime bandmate suggested Plunkett might want to stick with more familiar cadences.

“He’s a C-minus singer,” Schwartz said with a laugh.

Nick Vlahos

Nick Vlahos

is a longtime Peoria print journalist and a regular contributor to Peoria Magazine.