“It was my liver that was out of order. I knew it was my liver that was out of order because I had just been reading a patent liver-pill circular, in which were detailed the various symptoms by which a man could tell when his liver was out of order. I had them all.”

The words, written by Jerome K. Jerome in 1889, cut through the rain and reached the small, but captive crowd, gathered at the Minnesota State Fair. Commanding the audience during the “Hippocrates Cafe” performance, a live show that combines performing arts and medicine, is Mark Nelson, MD, an actor and a physician himself. The role of the thespian is nothing new to Nelson. He graduated from Julliard and worked in theater, television and film for 14 years, eventually landing at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis.

It was there that his path crossed with Jon Hallberg, MD, who is the Medical Director of the University of Minnesota Physicians Mill City Clinic. Little did he know then, 12 years ago, that saying yes to performing in a show about medicine would set his life on a trajectory toward a medical degree.

Hippocrates Performance

Giving Medicine a Stage

Over a decade ago, Hallberg challenged himself to help people approach the concept of healthcare in a new and dynamic way - to bring it to life. Inspired by radio, a medium he was familiar with, he created “Hippocrates Cafe”, an hour-long show that uses professional actors and musicians to place healthcare in context through story and song. Since 2009, they have performed over 100 unique shows in dozens of locations across eight states.

“I look at this as translational medical humanities. It talks about health and medicine and lets people discover it,” said Hallberg.

The actors and musicians use things like poetry, short stories, essays, excerpts, letters, historical documents and music to explore a theme during the show, such as mental health, aging or cancer.

“What attracted me to Hippocrates Café is we all know what it’s like to be sick, whether that’s cancer, heart problems or depression, we can all identify with these things,” said Nelson. “I think great writers, musicians and artists recognize that.”

The theme for the performance at the Minnesota State Fair was mental health and wellness. According to the National Alliance on Mental Health, approximately one in five adults in the United States, which is 46.6 million people, experience mental illness in a given year. This was one of the first performances for a more public audience. Typically, performances are held for specific audiences at regional and national medical conferences.

“When we have these public shows, the goal is to educate both the public and experts at the same time. It really is for everyone,” explained Hallberg.

“I think people sometimes go to the doctor and think their doctors are speaking in a completely different language. They don’t understand what medications they are taking or why they are taking them. Hippocrates Cafe humanizes medicine at a time when it’s really important that medicine find a way to identify with humans and not just other doctors.”

Mark Nelson, MD

And now, as a family medicine physician, that resonates with him even more.


Mark Nelson Photo

From Actor to Doctor

Nelson remembers one of the first times he approached Hallberg about going to medical school, laughing fondly, “He said ‘and when you graduate and you’re a doctor, you can come back and work at Mill City.’ I was like sure, Jon, sure.”

Nelson could not have predicted then that Hallberg was right, but he had a long road ahead of him. He spent 10 years working toward his medical degree: three years at the University of Minnesota taking undergraduate courses, followed by four years at the Medical School and three years in residency at the Broadway Family Medicine program.

Medical School was a natural fit for Nelson, family medicine in particular. “What I especially  love about family medicine is the potential to invest with people for the long haul. I am not going to know you for only six months. I will know you, hopefully, for the rest of your life, and I am going to know your family, and I will know all about your job, and I will just know everything about you that a good family doctor needs to know.”

In August of 2019, all the hard work finally paid off. Nelson walked through the doors of Mill City Clinic as a doctor, just as Hallberg had predicted years before.

“The build up was a little scary, because now suddenly I’m the doctor,” said Nelson. “But that lasted all of five minutes when I got here because then it hit me - this is where I should be. It feels really, really good.”

Images courtesy of David Joles and Tom Wallace of the Star Tribune.