Oscar, the handsome tortoiseshell cat, has a penchant for predicting death. Some call him a cuter, cuddlier version of the Grim Reaper while others prefer to think of him as an Angel of Mercy. Oscar resides at the Steere House Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Rhode Island, a facility that cares for people with severe dementia. He was adopted by the staff in 2005 to make the Steere House a homier place and to provide a happy distraction for patients and visiting families. However, to everyone’s consternation, Oscar spent more time hiding or sunning himself than socializing with visitors or patients. In fact, he was quite aloof. After a year however, it became apparent that Oscar was destined for a more specialized role: comforting patients in their dying hours.
The staff began to notice that, in between catnaps, Oscar would make his rounds going from one room to another. He would poke his head in the doorway, peek at the patients and sniff the air. He rarely spent much time with anyone — except when they had just hours to live.
First, Oscar’s regular purring presence at a patient’s bedside just hours before dying seemed a fluke. But over time his record became so spot-on that the staff learned they better quickly pick up the phone and call family members when Oscar cozies-up along side their patients. If prevented from entering the room of a dying patient, Oscar will doggedly claw at doors and walls, trying to get in. Twenty-five times in a row, Oscar predicted which patient would go next and when.
When Oscar sensed a patient was a death’s doorstep, he would quietly pad into the room and remain until the patient passed away. Dr. David Dosa, an attending physician at the Steere House who was first quite dubious about Oscar’s talent, described the cat’s unusual behavior 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.
Dr. Dosa at first worried that people would be frightened by this furry grim reaper, especially after he published the first account of Oscar in 2007. Yet, quite the contrary, caretakers and family members found this unique cat a comforting presence at one of life’s most difficult moments — death. ”People actually were taking great comfort in this idea, that this animal was there and might be there when their loved ones eventually pass,” Dosa said. “He was there when they couldn’t be.”
To illustrate his point, Dr. Dosa notes that Oscar has been thanked in more than one newspaper eulogy. ”Maybe they’re seeing what they want to see,” he said, “but what they’re seeing is a comfort to them in a real difficult time in their lives.”
One time, the nurses preempted Oscar and placed him in the bed of a man they were sure would die that day. Oscar was indignant and would not stay with the man. The nursing staff thought Oscar had lost his touch. However, it turns out, Oscar was more perceptive than the medical professionals and the patient lived a few more days. But true to form, in the man’s final hours, Oscar jumped up on his bed without prompting and held his bedside vigil.
Now, of course, one must challenge cause and effect and wonder if somehow Oscar the cat was snuffing out his patients! Imagine if you were “coincidentally” present at 50 death scenes….would law enforcement not raise an eyebrow? Fortunately, there is no evidence that Oscar is doing anything but bringing comfort to people in their last dying hours.
Over the years, Dr. Dosa grew extremely fond of Oscar and became truly convinced that this tortoiseshell cat has a unique intuitive knowledge about death that was escaping even the best doctors and nurses. In 2010, Dosa published a book entitled Making Rounds With Oscar: The Extraordinary Gift of an Ordinary Cat. At that time Oscar had correctly predicted 50 deaths. In the book, Dosa recounts stories of families who embraced Oscar and his unique ability.
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