Monday, February 15, 2010

Books: Oscar the Cat Knows When Death is Near

PROVIDENCE, R.I. —The cat’s uncanny. It knows when death approaches.

At first this was just a curious observation. Now it’s an undeniable conclusion, first published two years ago in a medical journal and now in a new book that came out last week: “Making Rounds with Oscar: The Extraordinary Gift of an Ordinary Cat.” (Hyperion, $23.99).

Oscar is the cat. David Dosa is the author and the doctor. And it would be a mistake to assume from the title that Oscar merely accompanies Dosa at Steere House in Providence, which cares for patients with terminal dementia.

“It’s definitely his world,” Dosa says. “He just lets us work there.”

Oscar lives at the nursing home. And in his roughly five years there, Oscar has sensed the imminent deaths of some 50 patients whom he insisted on sitting beside and keeping company as their lives came to a close.

“It’s not like he dawdles,” Dosa writes. “He’ll slip out for two minutes, grab some kibble, and then he’s back at the patient’s side. It’s like he’s literally on a vigil.”

Dosa is an assistant professor of medicine at Brown University. He has faith in science, not in a cat. Well, that was once the case. Dosa’s faith has been shaken.

“My own intellectual vanity made it easier for me to reject the notion that some errant feline could know more than we as medical staff did,” Dosa writes. “I felt strangely elated by the notion that I could be completely wrong.”

A few years ago Dosa realized he was completely wrong. Two patients on opposite sides of the nursing home were dying. A female staff member who earlier noticed Oscar’s aptitude to sense the onset of death took Oscar out of one patient’s room and brought him to the room of the other patient who was regarded as more deathly ill.

To read more about Oscar the Cat, http://www.projo.com/lifebeat/content/artsun-oscar_01-31-10_61H80A6_v26.3a627cd.html

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