Making the Rounds with Oscar

Oscar, an everyday cat, made headlines by appearing to know, and to attend, dying patients at a nursing home, takes a new turn this year with the publication of a Brown professor’s book.

Written by Mark Hollmer and Originally Published on Today at Brown on August 27, 2009

One of the first times Brown geriatrician David Dosa met Oscar the cat at the Steere House Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Providence, the animal bit him. It seems Oscar wasn’t inclined to socialize; he was saving his energy for more important things, such as discerning imminent patient deaths – an apparent talent that brought him worldwide renown.

“When I first met him, Oscar didn’t want anything to do with anybody,” says Dosa. “He spent most of his time hiding or finding a quiet place to sit in the sun.”

But when a patient neared death, the physician relates, Oscar would quietly enter the room and remain until the patient passed away. Dosa described the cat’s unusual habit in a 2007 article in the New England Journal of Medicine:

Mrs. K. is resting peacefully in her bed, her breathing steady but shallow. Oscar jumps onto her bed and sniffs the air. He turns around twice before curling up beside Mrs. K.

A nurse walks into the room to check on her patient. She pauses to note Oscar’s presence. Concerned, she grabs Mrs. K.'s chart off the medical-records rack and begins to make phone calls.

Within a half hour the family starts to arrive. Oscar has not budged, instead purring and gently nuzzling Mrs. K. A young grandson asks his mother, “What is the cat doing here?” The mother, fighting back tears, tells him, “He is here to help Grandma get to heaven.” Thirty minutes later, Mrs. K. takes her last earthly breath. With this, Oscar sits up, looks around, then departs the room so quietly that the grieving family barely notices.

After the essay was published, the story of Oscar’s seemingly intuitive ability to give comfort to dying, elderly patients – many of whom suffer from Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia – gained international media attention.  He even got his own page on Wikipedia. Soon Oscar’s adventures will be the focus of a new book.

Making Rounds With Oscar: The Extraordinary Gift of an Ordinary Cat, written by Dosa, an assistant professor of medicine and community health at Brown’s Warren Alpert Medical School, will be published by Hyperion in early February 2010. The book recounts the stories of families who got to know Oscar and his unique ability. Dosa hopes that in reading Oscar’s story, readers also will learn more about terminal dementia and end-of-life care.

“End of life care is an important topic now as the health-care reform debate goes on,” Dosa says. “This book gives an inside look at how one works with families at the end of life – what they experience and what their thought processes are. And,” he adds, “It is much more readable and approachable because there is a cat involved.”

Five years old, Oscar still lives on the third floor of Steere House, where Dosa does patient rounds.  The area, a locked unit of the Providence nursing home, generally houses elderly patients with Alzheimer’s disease or some other form of end-stage dementia. These days Oscar can roam more than he used to: he often spends time outside the locked part of the third floor. But caregivers on the floor still find him standing vigil for dying patients.

Oscar is also a bit more sociable. “He has become more friendly and approachable as I have gotten to know him,” Dosa said. “He has certainly mellowed over the years.”

Whether or not readers of Dosa’s upcoming book will believe Oscar can mysteriously identify those who are dying, the cat’s presence at bedsides has been a boon, Dosa says: “He is there as a comfort for patients who are dealing with difficult times in their lives.”

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