23 May 2016

Extraordinary Cat Predicts and Comforts the Dying

The plaque on the wall of Steere House Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Providence, Rhode Island reads, “For his compassionate hospice care, this plaque is awarded to Oscar the Cat.”

If physicians or nursing home staff see him lying on a patient’s bed, they believe it’s an almost absolute indicator of impending death and allows them the time to notify family members.

Oscar has also provided companionship to those who might have otherwise died alone.

Dr. David Dosa, a geriatrician who works with Oscar, wrote an essay called ‘A Day in the Life of Oscar the Cat’ in the New England Journal of Medicine.

He surveys Mrs. T. She is clearly in the terminal phase of illness, and her breathing is labored. Oscar's examination is interrupted by a nurse, who walks in to ask the daughter whether Mrs. T. is uncomfortable and needs more morphine. The daughter shakes her head, and the nurse retreats. Oscar returns to his work. He sniffs the air, gives Mrs. T. one final look, then jumps off the bed and quickly leaves the room. Not today.

Making his way back up the hallway, Oscar arrives at Room 313. The door is open, and he proceeds inside. Mrs. K. is resting peacefully in her bed, her breathing steady but shallow. She is surrounded by photographs of her grandchildren and one from her wedding day. Despite these keepsakes, she is alone. Oscar jumps onto her bed and again sniffs the air. He pauses to consider the situation, and then turns around twice before curling up beside Mrs. K.

One hour passes. Oscar waits. A nurse walks into the room to check on her patient. She pauses to note Oscar's presence. Concerned, she hurriedly leaves the room and returns to her desk. 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. Chairs are brought into the room, where the relatives begin their vigil. The priest is called to deliver last rites. And still, 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.

This essay was published in 2007 and at that time Oscar had presided over the deaths of more than 25 residents in two years.

He continues his work at the Steere House and Dr. Dosa has gone on to write a book about him - Making Rounds with Oscar: The Extraordinary Gift of an Ordinary Cat.

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