Some people call him the Grim Reaper and originally the nursing home adopted him to keep the elderly company, but instead he laid about until he sensed the last moments for one of the residents.
When it was time, he made his rounds, sniffed the air of every room, and then when he sensed one was about to die, he would lay beside them until they took their last breath to comfort them in their last moments. Otherwise, he kept to himself until it was someone’s last moments of life.
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.
At first, the staff thought his behaviour was a fluke, but after a while, the staff took the hint and called relatives when he kept one of the residents company. If the staff tried to stop him, he would urgently paws the door until someone let him in, almost as though he had a job to do, just as George (AKA Toilet Seat Girl), Roxy, and Mason did in “Dead Like Me”.
In “Dead Like Me”, if the Reapers did not take the person’s soul before they died, it spelled trouble.
Oscar supposedly predicted 25 times in a row who was going to die next and when.
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.
At first, Dr. Dosa was concerned that the cat would disturb people, but the opposite happened. They were comforted to know the cat would keep them company at the “estimated time of death” or "ETD", as “Dead Like Me” calls it.
”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.”
Once, a staff member pre-empted Oscar’s prediction and placed him beside a man they were sure was going to die that night. I guess Oscar did not get any orders from Rube, because he became indignant and left the room. The man lived for several more days before Oscar got his yellow post-it note with the man’s ETD.
Oscar eventually predicted over 50 deaths and comforted each of them in their last moments.
Dosa hopes that while reading Oscar’s story, people will also learn more about terminal dementia and end-of-life-care, a subject that is obviously uncomfortable for many people. “End of life care is an important topic now as the health-care reform debate goes on,” Dosa says. “This book gives an inside look at how one works with families at the end of life – what they experience and what their thought processes are. And,” he adds, “it is much more readable and approachable because there is a cat involved.”
Poor cat. I hope he did not need to explain to the dementia patients that they are dead after they die. I am sure working on the dementia unit cannot always be fun.
When Oscar received a post-it , he went in search of the patient who was about to die. He found her, jumped onto the bed, curled up beside her, and purred her to eternal sleep. Mrs. K quietly died with Oscar purring beside her.
On his way back to the charting area, Oscar passes a plaque mounted on the wall. On it is engraved a commendation from a local hospice agency: “For his compassionate hospice care, this plaque is awarded to Oscar the Cat.” Oscar takes a quick drink of water and returns to his desk to curl up for a long rest. His day's work is done. There will be no more deaths today, not in Room 310 or in any other room for that matter. After all, no one dies on the third floor unless Oscar pays a visit and stays awhile.
That is even better than just dying in your sleep. I hope I have a cat purring beside me as I fall asleep for one last time, when my time comes.