A Swedish Patient

I introduced myself and continued “and you are Annika LeBrun?”

“Ja, det stämmer”, she answered in perfect Swedish.

I had suspected from her first name that she might be Swedish. She continued in an accent that suggested roots near Stockholm, the area where I was born:

“With a last name like that and a license plate in Swedish, I knew where you were from.”

We continued the visit in our mutual mother tongue. I had to think fast to find the right Swedish medical terms after working as a physician for thirty-three years in this country and not having spoken Swedish for a couple of years except a few phone calls to a couple of aunts in Sweden.

My new patient had also been away from Sweden for several years, and she ended up asking me how to describe a few of her medical concerns in Swedish.

The word “cataract” came up, and it took me a few seconds to retrieve “grå starr”, and I couldn’t help myself but went on to also talk about “grön starr”, glaucoma.

Swedish has two medical nomenclatures, one newer internationalized one, where “cataract” is “katarakt”, and an older one with Swedish or Germanic words.

The word “starr” dates back to the 1600’s and derives from ancient Germanic words for “stiff”, and indirectly also to “stirra”, which means “stare”.

A cataract affected eye has a gray pupil due to clouding of the lens, whereas glaucoma, a term derived from the Greek “glaucos”, which means “blue-green”, may have a greenish hue, but sometimes may look normal or cloudy.

We finished our visit, and I struggled for a split second to find the right words for “stop at the reception desk and make a follow-up appointment”.

I mused silently about all the quaint Swedish medical words I haven’t heard or used for thirty years: “bukspottkörtel” (belly spit gland) for pancreas, “ros” (derived from Dutch and German words for red), for erysipelas, “bältros” for shingles. The English word “shingles” is derived from the Latin cingulus, which is a straight translation of the Greek “zoster”, meaning “girdle” (from the way the shingles rash can encircle half the body; the Swedish prefix “bält-” means “belt”, just like it sounds).

Later, on my way home, I thought about how you can use your second language so much that your first language, even though you may have a deeper understanding of it, can seem harder to use in some situations. But, to be perfectly honest, sometimes it is still my first choice, for example when counting.

I arrived home feeling as if I had traveled far today – 3,000 miles to Stockholm and thirty-odd years to my early days in medicine. It’s been a long but interesting day.


1 Response to “A Swedish Patient”

  1. 1 Christina September 26, 2014 at 3:10 am

    I had a Greek friend who was fluent in Greek, English, Spanish, Italian and had a functional vocabulary in a few additional languages. I once asked him what he dreamed in and he told me it depended where the dream was set. After a few months in Greece, or the US, he would begin to forget even key words in the other language. So I find your post interesting, but not at all surprising.

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Osler said “Listen to your patient, he is telling you the diagnosis”. Duvefelt says “Listen to your patient, he is telling you what kind of doctor he needs you to be”.


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