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Rhode Island nursing home, death comes purring
Thursday, July 26, 2007

A two-year-old cat has become a telltale sign of death at a Rhode Island nursing home, curling up beside dying patients in their final few hours, says a touching essay in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Dr. David Dosa, a geriatrician at the Steere House Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Providence, detailed the phenomenon Thursday in a brief essay titled "A Day in the Life of Oscar the Cat."

Oscar strolls down a hallway at the Steere House nursing home on Monday.
(Associated Press/Stew Milne)

Since he arrived at the centre two years ago, Oscar has been at the side of 25 patients who have died, according to the article.

"He doesn't make too many mistakes. He seems to understand when patients are about to die," Dosa said.

Oscar makes his daily rounds, waiting patiently outside rooms if the doors are closed, wrote Dosa. Once inside, the grey-and-white cat jumps onto beds and appears to inspect patients by sniffing the air.

If Oscar leaves the room, the patient isn't likely to die that day, said Dosa.

But when the cat curls up on the bed, staff notice. They start phoning family members because the patient usually dies within four hours.

Usually indifferent and sometimes unfriendly to staff and visitors, Oscar purrs and nuzzles the patients during their final hours, Dosa said.

He recounted the hours before the death of a patient called Mrs. K.:

"A nurse walks into the room to check on her patient. She pauses to note Oscar's presence," writes Dosa.

"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."

When asked why the cat was in the room, the woman's daughter told her young son: "He is here to help grandma get to heaven."

For his efforts, a plaque mounted on the wall reads: "For his compassionate hospice care, this plaque is awarded to Oscar the Cat."

Experts have speculated about Oscar's behaviour, saying he could be responding to scents given off by the patient or the behaviour of the nurses.

"Many family members take some solace from it. They appreciate the companionship that the cat provides for their dying loved one."

Oscar was adopted as a kitten and grew up on the centre's third-floor dementia unit, which treats patients with Alzheimer's, Parkinson's disease and other illnesses.

Daniel E.
This was a great story.

According to a new article by Slate, the story has gotten a lot of traction, with bloggers having interesting, constructive criticisms:

Which brings us to the real question of the article: Why is it that only the cat could sense impending death?

Usually I have worked with “old time” nurses who would call me and say: You’d better check Mrs. So and so”. And I’d arrive, and find they had a heart attack, or pneumonia and were dying. It was partly instinct, but it was also partly experience, the ability to see the difference in how a person is normally and who has changed for the worse, and the “little clues” of pale skin (low blood pressure), sweating (shock) and odor (acidosis, melana, uremia).

So why is it only a cat has time to sense what any experienced nurse would have done in the past? Is the nursing home understaffed? Or is the nurse only there to supervise, delegating the messy “Hands on” business of nursing to poorly trained nursing assistants, so the more experienced nurses can do the more important job of documenting what was done so the nusing home can get paid?

HeyDoc Blog
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