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A healthy dose of theater

Attendees of the first Hippocrates Café in November enjoyed a laugh at the performance.

An elegant, bespectacled brunette—acclaimed local actor Angela Timberman—took the makeshift stage at the Mill City Clinic in Minneapolis. But it was the voice of a loopy schoolgirl, in a riotous reading of Shel Silverstein’s poem “Sick,” that greeted the audience at this theatrical pageant in mid-November.

“I cannot go to school today,”
Said little Peggy Ann McKay.
“I have the measles and the mumps,
A gash, a rash and purple bumps.
My mouth is wet, my throat is dry,
I’m going blind in my right eye. …”

So began Hippocrates Café, the brainchild of Jon Hallberg, M.D. (Medical School Class of ‘92), the Mill City Clinic’s medical director. That night, the hourlong presentation of bite-sized readings focused a specific theme—influenza—with, as Hallberg wryly noted, “a little dose of hypochondriasis tossed in for good measure.” The vaudeville-flavored evening varied in tone and content, with a range of performances by several Minneapolis actors.

In stark contrast with her antic reading of the Silverstein poem, Timberman gave a tender, moving reading of P. McTim’s “1918 Influenza Epidemic at University of MN Hospital.” The memoir describes a student nurse’s effort, in defiance of early 20th-century hospital protocol, to comfort her young patients by covertly rocking them to sleep at night.

Hallberg, an assistant professor of family medicine and community health at the University of Minnesota, has long worked to incorporate arts and humanities into medical education.

Actor Angela Timberman took the podium at Hippocrates Café for a dramatic reading. (Photos: Eric Melzer)

“I’m interested in choosing medical topics that have powerful, universal themes within them, and [bringing people together] to reflect on them, inject some humor into them,” says Hallberg, who also serves as company physician for the Guthrie Theater and medical commentator for Minnesota Public Radio.

“This thing has been percolating in my brain for many years. It feels like all my previous interests have coalesced with this,” he says of Hippocrates Café.

In January, the café featured hors d’ouevres, wine, conversation, and theatrical readings chosen to evoke the “essence of family medicine.” Funny and poignant readings of work by writers ranging from E. B. White to Garrison Keillor made a compelling case for Hallberg’s chosen specialty.

Several pieces acknowledged that family medicine—a field in which the clinician is also expected to be a counselor, advocate, nutritionist, administrator, and more—is not about pay, prestige, or simple answers.

But the show made clear that for a person with curiosity, humility, and compassion, the chance to get to know a fascinating array of people—and the privilege of witnessing some of the most intimate moments of their lives—is worth it.

“Medicine is absolutely an art as much as it is a science,” Hallberg says. “Every single encounter with a patient also requires right-brain—creative, innovative, nonlinear—thinking.

“You have to have a firm grounding in the sciences,” he hastens to add. “Everything’s interesting. That’s why I’m a family physician; my specialty is the human condition.”

By Susan Maas

To receive Hippocrates Café updates, please contact Jon Hallberg, M.D., at hallb006@umn.edu.

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