All Greek to me

BMJ 2008; 337 doi: (Published 30 June 2008) Cite this as: BMJ 2008;337:a550
  1. Helen Halpern, GP principal
  1. 1Brondesbury Medical Centre, London
  1. helen.halpern{at}

    The patient and I were talking in circles. She was a Greek woman in her 70s, the widow of an English man. She was extremely anxious about her recent admission to hospital with an episode of pyelonephritis and was exhorting me to do more tests on her kidneys. I was trying to explain that, now her infection had been treated and her ultrasound scan and recent renal function tests were normal, there was no need for any further investigations.

    She did not seem convinced: “But surely there must have been something wrong for a very long time, doctor.” There was no note of blame in her voice despite my apparent failure to have diagnosed a serious problem over the many years we had known each other. She had come in to the consultation bearing a box of chocolates and had agreed to let my GP registrar sit in.

    “Tell me what you understand has been the problem with your kidneys,” I suggested.

    “Well, the problem is nephritis, an infection of the kidney, and it has been there a long time.”

    The words “a long time” had been repeated, and slowly the penny began to drop.

    “What is the name of your problem?” I asked.


    I wrote down the words “paleo” and “pyelo” and explained that pyelo is the medical term for part of the kidney. My patient laughed, my registrar looked relieved, and I mentally thanked my son, who at the age of 5 had shown a great interest in dinosaurs and paleoanthropology.


    Cite this as: BMJ 2008;337:a550


    • “Paleo” is a Greek term meaning ancient or old.

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