By: David Dosa
Publication Date: April 2011
Reviewwed by: Ellen Feld
Review Date: April 17, 2011
You may have heard about the remarkable cat who is able to predict, with amazing accuracy, when patients in the nursing home where he lives are about to die. Within the last few hours of a patient’s life, the tabby cat curls up on the bed beside the ill person and doesn’t leave until death has visited the room. This is the story of that cat, Oscar, and the doctor who at first refused to believe that there was anything special about an ordinary cat.
The third floor of Steere House Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Providence, Rhode Island, is home to patients suffering from various forms of dementia. It is also home to two cats, Maya and Oscar. The pair are just ordinary cats who do their job of cheering patients up by purring, chasing each other and sun bathing in the common room.
Dr. David Dosa, a geriatrician who works on the third floor, isn’t particularly fond of cats and ignores them until the day that Mary Miranda, the day shift nurse, tells Dr. Dosa there is something he needs to see. Following Mary to a patient’s room, he expects to find a person in need of care. Instead, Mary points out Oscar, lying on the bed. Mary explains she and some of the other staff have noticed that the normally anti-social cat spends more time with critically ill patients. In fact, the feline seems to have an uncanny ability to know when the end is near and hold vigil on the dying person’s bed. Dr. Dosa is unconvinced and chalks it up to coincidence until he too, begins to notice Oscar’s ability.
Dr. Dosa eventually decides to look into Oscar’s unusual talent and begins to contact family members of patients who have died while at Steere House. Time and again, he is met with people who talk, not just of how Oscar was there for the ill patient, but how the cat was there to comfort family members too. Dr. Dosa is slowly brought around to realize that there is something more than mere coincidence going on with Oscar and his visits.
Ever the scientist, Dr. Dosa hypothesizes that perhaps Oscar is picking up a subtle change in odor given off by the dying person because, as cells die off, they give off a sweet odor. Could it be that simple or is there more to Oscar’s remarkable ability? Why does he feel the need to stand vigil while the other cat, Maya, does not?
Writing an essay about Oscar for the New England Journal of Medicine was the impetus for this book and Dr. Dosa has done an excellent job of bringing, not just Oscar, but also the staff and patients of Steere House, to life. This is not just a book about the cat, but also of all those who call Steere House their home, as well as a look at what dementia does to people, both those afflicted by it and the caregivers who deal with it every day. We get to know the members of this nursing home quite well and mourn, along with their families, at each passing. If you’re looking for a book about a cat and nothing else, this is not it. However, if you’re looking for a book that gives insight into what dealing with dementia is like, along with how an “ordinary cat” helps those in need, then don’t miss this book!
Quill says: A moving and insightful look into the world of dementia with the help of a caring doctor and one amazing cat.