Doctor’s nature photography exhibit a tribute to pediatric cancer patient

Physicians fight disease every day with medicines and preventative care — but Dr. Matt Plofsky is using his passion for nature photography to combat pediatric cancer in a different way.

The family physician with NorthShore University HealthSystem and Deerfield resident will display his photographs at the Heller Nature Center through August to raise money for pediatric cancer research.

The exhibit is dedicated to the memory of one of Plofsky’s patients, Sam Sommer, 8, of Highwood, who died in December from leukemia. Plofsky is the longtime Sommer family doctor, and was inspired by Sam’s parents, Rabbi Michael and Phyllis Sommer.  Earlier this year, the two organized 73 rabbis to shave their heads for St. Baldrick’s Foundation.

“When I learned about (that) I felt like I wanted to see if there was something I could do to be helpful, to make a difference,” Plofsky said.

So he came up with the idea of dedicating his Heller show to Sam and selling his photographs to raise money for St. Baldrick’s, which supports pediatric cancer research.

“I told Phyllis (Sommer) about it and she said, ‘Sam loved Heller, go for it.’”

Though Plofsky was inspired by the way the Sommer family remembered Sam through their efforts to save other children, he shared the experience of losing Sam with the family from the start.

“He was the first child in 16 years (of family medical practice) who passed away,” Plofsky said. “It was hard to see the family go through it.”

The feeling between Plofsky and the Sommers is mutual. They were together from the initial diagnosis until the end, and recognize the compassion he offered both as a physician and a person.

“He cared so much about Sam and our whole family through everything,” Phyllis Sommer said. “Dr. Plofsky wasn’t just Sammy’s pediatrician; he is in fact our family practitioner. I love the way that he doesn’t just care for our children, but he cares for our whole family.”

Knowing he wanted to do more to raise money and awareness through the exhibit, Plofsky found other ways to raise money online. The exhibit is also available on American Frame (http://www.americanframe.com/artist/Matthew-Plofsky.aspx) and donations can be made directly to St. Baldrick’s (https://www.stbaldricks.org/fundraisers/mypage/402/2014).

While Plofsky spends every day of his professional life trying to battle disease, he also understands that only four percent of federal funding for cancer research goes to the pediatric forms of the illness. That is a reason he is using his photography to raise money.

“I love that Dr. Plofsky knows what we have come to learn — the only way to fight childhood cancer is through research, and the only way to do research is through funding,” Phyllis Sommer said. “He’s not just a doctor, he’s a human being, and I’m proud to know that his ability to help others can go far beyond just his professional expertise.”

A photographer most of his life, Plofsky’s passion for nature photography developed eight years ago after a medical crisis of his own. Six weeks after running the Chicago Marathon, he had a heart attack. He recovered, but decided to make some changes.

“It was a life-changing experience,” Plofsky said. “I love being outdoors. It’s relaxing and (photography) lets me use the other side of my brain.”

People visiting the exhibit at the Heller Nature Center can see the outdoor moments he has captured, from a Lake Superior sunset to bald eagles in Iowa. The exhibit means something much more important, however.

“He (Plofsky) knows how much nature and the natural world meant to Sam, so it’s a really fitting tribute to our little boy,” Phyllis Sommer said.

There will be an open house at 1 p.m. Sunday, July 20, at the Heller Nature Center, 2821 Ridge Road in Highland Park.

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