Walking in to see a dying patient on the advanced dementia unit is a four-legged Hospice worker called Oscar. Oscar is a gray and white cat who was adopted as a kitten by staff members and raised on this locked unit. Oscar has an uncanny ability to predict when residents are about to die; thus far he has presided over the deaths of more than 25 residents on the unit. His mere presence at the bedside is viewed by physicians and nursing home staff as an almost absolute indicator of impending death, allowing staff members to adequately notify families.
This story appeared in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine (July 26, 2007) where Dr. David Dosa, a geriatrician and professor at Brown University, described Oscar’s unique skill of divination. He said Oscar is not a particularly friendly cat, but he was there to be with people when they took their last breath. Sometimes Oscar arrived as early as four hours before, but he was universally there at least two hours before they died. The only death he missed was because a patient’s family asked for him to be removed, and when the staff did so, Oscar made such a ruckus outside that he had to be locked in.
What draws Oscar so strongly to those nearing death? Veterinarians and animal behaviorist say animals are sensitive to picking up chemical changes and detecting other subtle cues; for example, dogs can be trained to predict an epileptic seizure before patients sense it themselves. Laurie Cabot, the official witch of Salem, Massachusetts, said cats are a witch’s constant companion because they have psychic abilities.
I’m interested in what Oscar is getting out of this behavior, but it’s clear that patients, families and the staff are getting a lot. Oscar is the ceremonial director orchestrating this life-closing ritual. Everybody looks at Oscar’s presence at the death bed as the signal to prepare themselves for the end. This soft, furry, purring, feline brings people together in loving community. On the wall of this unit is an engraved commendation from a local hospice agency . . . .“For his compassionate Hospice care, this plaque is awarded to Oscar the Cat.”
What a glorious ceremonial departure . . . to breathe ones last breath enveloped by soft, warm purring pussy.