You may have heard the story on the radio, or saw it on the Internet last year - the nursing home cat who knows when people are going to die. Oscar, a black and white tabby, roams the halls of the dementia care unit he calls home, and when he curls up on a patient’s bed, the staff know that within twenty-four hours that patient will die. An intriguing human (feline?) interest story, but is there any truth to it?
Dr. David Dosa took up the challenge, turning Oscar’s story into an essay, and then a book, Making Rounds with Oscar.
Mary, the day shift nurse at Steere House, in Rhode Island, had already witnessed Oscar’s behavior. Dr. Dosa, telling the story from his point of view, is skeptical, suggesting it’s just coincidence, or maybe the cat senses the change in routine, but he decides to investigate.
Throughout the course of the book he interviews the families of Steere House patients who died in Oscar’s presence. At the same time, he begins paying more attention to Oscar’s behavior with the current patients.
The stories that come up are amazing. Oscar hops on the bed of a patient who seemed destined to die soon, then hops back down, instead taking up residence on another patient’s bed, one who seemed to be fine. Within a day, the first patient improved, while the second one passed away.
In another case, two patients were dying at the same time. One patient had family around the bedside, the other had no one. Oscar stayed with the second patient until he died, then joined the family with their vigil until that patient, too, passed away.
All of the people Dr. Dosa interviewed were glad Oscar was with them and their loved ones at the end, but no one could explain why the cat did what he did.
The story is told in first person, with many scenes recreated from interviews, and it reads much like a novel as Dr. Dosa explores Oscars’ mysterious talent. He discusses the stress of dementia and the toll it takes on everyone in the family. There’s an important section, too, on accepting the inevitable progression of dementia, and deciding when to stop medical intervention and focus on the comfort of the patient, allowing nature to take its course.
By the end of the book, Dr. Dosa has a likely theory about how Oscar can sense the impending death of a patient -- he’s probably able to pick up the scent of decaying cells. But why Oscar chooses to stay with the dying residents, providing such a comfort to both patients and their families -- that’s a question only the cat himself can answer.
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