Friday, August 20, 2010

Making Rounds with Oscar: The Extraordinary Gift of an Ordinary Cat by Dr. David Dosa, M.D.

David Dosa works in a hospice in Rhode Island named Steere House. Steere House tends to those who are dying, not just from cancer, but any progressive disease. What sets apart Steere House are some rather unusual staff members- the animals. Unlike other hospices, Steere has a "staff" of six cats, two rabbits, and other assorted animals.

It was once thought that bringing dirty, unsanitary animals into a hospital-like building was ridiculous. The dirt and the animals would bring disease and make things worse for the staff that had to keep everyone clean. But one day, a cat appeared at the door of Steere House, a very special cat who eventually acquired the name of Henry. Henry came in through the sliding doors one day and sat in the lounge area, bold as brass. Thinking that "Henry" was unclean, the staff attempted to chase him off, but "Henry" wouldn't be moved- until he went off on his own later that day. The next day, however, he was back.

After a long period of trying to prevent "Henry" from coming back, the staff eventually found it too wearying trying to chase him off every day, and "Henry", named after the Founder of Steere House, Henry Steere, whose portrait the cat liked to sit under, became a member of the staff himself. As he grew older, the staff tried to protect him, for after a fairly long life, "Henry" himself suffered end-of-life issues. Balance problems, vision problems, inability to control his bladder. As the staff realized that Henry was dying, they put off that last vet visit, not wanting to have to put him down. But they didn't have to. One day, Henry went to sleep and just never woke up.

But by that time, the staff realized that Henry had been therapeutic for staff and patients alike, and the idea was floated to adopt a cat as a replacement for Henry. Instead of just one, they got six, two for each floor of the house. One of those cats was Oscar. Oscar appeared normal for a time, until one of the nurses noticed that every time a patient passed away, Oscar was lying on the bed next to them, watching them like a sentry and purring. And as this happened to more and more people, the tale of a cat who could tell when a patient was to die spread through the nursing staff like wildfire.

Doctor Dosa heard the story from the third-floor nurse, Mary, and at first he pooh-poohed the story. But investigation showed that she was right, and that Oscar would indeed lie by the bodies of patients who were about to die. It got to the point where the staff used Oscar as a "tester". If he refused to lie down by a patient, no matter how poorly they looked or were doing, the staff knew they would survive- for now, at least. But the converse was also true.

As Dr. Dosa investigated the stories about Oscar, he came to conclude that it was true. Oscar seems to sense when a patient at the hospice is about to die. And that his "sense" seems to involve smell, as Oscar would sniff at the people, especially their feet, before making his "diagnosis". In the course of writing this book, Doctor Dosa interviewed not only hospital staff, but the families of former patients about Oscar, how they felt towards the cat, and how Oscar helped them come to terms with the death of their family members.

This book is very heartwarming to read, but also difficult at times, as it shows people falling into Alzheimers, Senile Dementia, and other diseases where they are no longer the people their families once knew. This takes a toll on the people that care for them- often sons and daughters, and it's a thankless task that you can't take a break or a vacation from, no matter how much you want one or need one. The pain of husbands and wives, sons and daughters when a parent or parents no longer know who they are or believe them to be scary strangers was heartbreaking to read.

More than a few times, it moved me to tears, because it reminded me of my own mother's death from a Parkinson's-like disease. She was once a funny, literate, articulate woman, and by the end, she could barely speak, and her words were muffled and slurred- added to the fact that she'd decided to have all her teeth pulled, which made her voice bad to begin with. And the regret that comes with not having gone to see her in the nursing home the night before she died- because it was late, and I didn't want to disturb her. So reading this book was very emotional for me, but in a way, I was glad that these people had something to comfort them before they died, even if it was Oscar.

Sad and yet happy, this book shows the connection between people and animals even in places that can be the saddest of places. If you've lost a parent or a partner to disease, this book can make you cry, and the stories of the people who die will make you want to cry anyway, from the man whose beloved wife didn't know him anymore and screamed, cried and ran away from him, to the man who would call his daughter asking to be rescued from the strange woman in his bed and asking to be taken home. But the "strange woman" was his wife, and he already was home. Stories like these and more fill the book, turning reading it into a three-hanky cry, especially towards the end, when several of the people we are introduced to in the book finally pass on.

This book was a difficult read for emotional reasons, and yet, I am very glad I read it. As Doctor Dosa did, I found that losing someone you love, or the threat of losing them makes you re-evaluate your life, and decide what you want to live for. The book points out that now is the time for living and making memories with those you love, as tomorrow might just be too late. An excellent book and highly recommended.

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