DOCTOR'S VIEW ARCHIVE

A White Patch on the Belly After Death

"The necropsy report shows that on the abdomen there is a patch of vitiligo."

What does this mean? To translate it into everyday words, the examination after death shows a white patch on the belly.

The Lingo of Medicine

Medical talk is a lingo. What's a lingo? It's "a strange, incomprehensible language." A foreign language is a lingo. Computerese, legalese and other specialized languages are lingos. Medicalese is a lingo.

Take the original example: "The necropsy report shows that on the abdomen there is a patch of vitiligo." The words that may (or may not) seem strange and incomprehensible are necropsy, maybe abdomen, and vitiligo.

We find the meaning of these terms on MedTerms.com. No problem. The MedTerms.com entries for these three terms give the basic definitions and more.

Necropsy: An autopsy (postmortem examination).

Necropsies have been done for more than 2,000 years but during most of this time they were rarely done, and then only for legal purposes. The Roman physician Antistius performed one of the earliest necopsies on record. In 44 B.C., he examined Julius Caesar and documented 23 wounds, including a final fatal stab to the chest. In 1410, the Catholic Church itself ordered an autopsy -- on Pope Alexander V, to determine whether his successor had poisoned him. No evidence of this was found.

By the turn of the 20th century, prominent physicians such as Rudolf Virchow in Berlin, Karl Rokitansky in Vienna, and William Osler in Baltimore won popular support for the practice. They defended it as a tool of discovery, one that was needed to identify the cause of tuberculosis, reveal how to treat appendicitis, and establish the existence of Alzheimer's disease. They showed that necopsies prevented errors -- that, without them, doctors could not know when their diagnoses were incorrect. Most deaths were a mystery then, and perhaps what clinched the argument was the notion that necropsies could provide families with answers -- give the story of a loved one's life a comprehensible ending. By the end of the Second World War, the necropsy was firmly established as a routine part of death in North America and Europe.