Tuesday, June 24, 2008


Yesterday morning I visited my Mom in the hospital.

After I asked if any of her doctors had visited her since the night before—her primary care doctor, her heart doctor, her lung doctor or her oncologist—my Mom pointed at the white board next to her bed.

The hospital has a white board next to each patient. The shift nurse uses dry erase markers to write her name on the whiteboard, any special notes on the patient and there is a section at the bottom for ‘Goals for Today.’

Under the ‘Goals for Today’ my Mom’s nurse for yesterday morning had written, “No SOB!

My Mom pointed at the white board and asked me, “Why would she write that? I’m trying to be so nice!”

I said, “No, no, no, I’m sure that is not about you! I’m sure it’s just some hospital thing. It must be the nurse reminding herself to be informal and less officious or something like that. You know, no standard operating BS. It must mean something like that. I’m sure it’s not about you.”

I could see from my Mom’s face—even through the oxygen mask—that she didn’t believe me.

As it happened, just a few minutes later the nurse came in to check up on my Mom and see if she needed anything. She asked if everything was okay and my Mom smiled and said she was fine.

I said everything was great, and then I smiled and pointed at the white board. “But, you know, my Mom was wondering if ‘SOB’ means the same thing in the hospital as it means outside the hospital.”

The nurse looked at me, then looked at the white board and then back at me. At first her face was completely blank. She had no idea what I was talking about. Then her eyes went wide. She blushed—very deeply red—and covered her face with her hands.

“No, no, no,” the nurse said. “SOB is the abbreviation we use for ‘shortness of breath!’ That’s all it means. It really is the technically approved abbreviation we use. And the doctors use it all the time, too. Because your Mom is having trouble with her blood oxygen levels, all the nurses want to make sure that we keep her breathing steady and don’t let her experience shortness of breath. We call it SOB.”

The nurse grabbed a dry erase marker and used the heel of her palm to erase ‘No SOB’ and write in, ‘No shortness of breath.’

“There you go,” I said, smiling at my Mom. “See, I told you it was just a hospital thing. Nothing to be upset about.”

“We forget,” the nurse said, “that although we see these abbreviations all the time, it’s all new for the patients. I’m sorry.”

“No problem,” I said. “I told my Mom it was nothing to worry about.”

With all the things my Mom has to worry about, she was worried about what the nurse wrote on the white board.

Still, at least it was something that was easy to figure out. I wish all the hospital worries were that straightforward and resolved themselves that pleasantly.

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