Friday, April 16, 2010

Making the Rounds with Oscar by David Dosa, M.D.

Some time ago there was a human interest feature at the end of the nightly newscast which featured Oscar the cat.  Once I saw that Dr. Dosa was publishing a book, Making the Rounds with Oscar, I added it to my library reserve list and eagerly awaited its arrival.

From Publishers Weekly
Dosa, a geriatrician with a strong aversion to cats, tells the endearing story of Oscar the cat, the aloof resident at a nursing home who only spends time with people who are about to die. Despite hearing numerous stories about Oscar's uncanny ability to predict when a patient's time is nearing, Dosa, ever the scientist, remains skeptical. Slowly, he starts to concede that there may be something special about Oscar. Dosa starts to pay more attention to the cat's decidedly odd behavior, noticing that Oscar seeks out the dying, snuggles with the patient and family members until the patient passes; with others, he smells the patient's feet, sits outside a closed door until admitted, or refuses to leave a dying patient's bed. Dosa discovers how powerfully Oscar's mere presence reassures frightened or grieving family. Ultimately, the good doctor realizes that it doesn't matter where Oscar's gift comes from; it's the comfort he brings that's important. This touching and engaging book is a must-read for more than just cat lovers; anyone who enjoys a well-written and compelling story will find much to admire in its unlikely hero.

On coping
Watching a loved one's health fail is hard.  Most families eventually find a way to accept it and move on.  Some can even do it with grace and dignity.  Mary always spoke of one son who was ceaselessly cheerful in the fact of his mother's dementia.  "How do you do it?" she asked him one day.  "Oh, I said good-bye to my mother a long time ago," he told her.  "Now I've just fallen in love with this little lady!"

On dog person vs. cat person
Ida looked up at me with a knowing smile.  "You're not much of a cat person, are you?"  "I can't say that I am, but I'm trying to be."  Then Ida openly laughed.  "I knew it!  I could tell you were more of a dog person.  You're too damn nice."

On Oscar's demeanor
He generally kept a safe distance and left my mother alone, but when he'd wander by and she would stop to talk to him, well, he stopped too.  He never stayed long and he never cuddled up to her--Oscar was more like a visiting dignitary than a house cat--but he always stopped as if to hear her out.  Visiting dignitary indeed.

On coping...again
"Because you want them back in the worst possible just want your parent back, the one who signed the report cards, the one who made the Thanksgiving dinner.  But you can't."  Knowing that, and coming to terms with that knowledge, is really the most difficult part.  A relationship between two people is made up, for the most part, of invisible things:  memories, shared experiences, hopes, and fears.  When one person disappears, the other is left alone, as if holding a string with no kite.  Memories can do a lot to sustain you, but the invisible stuff of the relationship is lost, even as unresolved issues remain:  arguments never settled, kind words never uttered, things left unsaid.  They become like a splinter beneath the skin--unseen, but painful nevertheless.  Until they're exposed, coping with the loss is impossible.

On the reason for cats
I think it's one of the reasons we've kept cats at Steere House all these years.  The patients like them, for the most part, either because they hark back to some forgotten relationship they may have had with a pet, or maybe because they are non-judgmental.  A cat doesn't care what you do for a living or whether you're rich or poor.  A cat doesn't care if you're able to remember its name or if you're up to date with the latest news.  But we were beginning to realize that cats mean something to the families, too, long before Oscar started his vigils.  They seem to help reassure family members who enter into the nursing home with some trepidation.  For a lot of visitors, the reality of nursing home existence can be a rather harsh wake-up call.  All the more reason to take comfort in something familiar.  Even if it is a cat.

On how Oscar does it
"I feel like the more I learn, the less I know.  I mean, why does he do it?" asked Dr. Dosa.  "Who knows, Dr. Dosa?  There's probably some scientific explanation but in the end, does it really matter?  He's there when it counts."

On Oscar
Is it outlandish to suggest that Oscar, a cat residing on a floor where patients with end-stage dementia routinely die, has merely learned how to pick up on a specific smell emitted in the final hours of a patient's lifespan?  Perhaps, but I like to think of Oscar as more than a ketone early-earning system.  Ever since I was a child, listening intently as my grandfather read bedtime stories from Rudyard Kipling's Just So Stories, I have imbued animals with human characteristics and frailties.  It could simply be that we see ourselves in them--the best of ourselves, sometimes.  On a floor where the staff has gone to great lengths to make the dying experience tolerable for the residents and their families, I'd like to think Oscar embodies empathy and companionship.  ...I don't really pretend to know the nature of Oscar's special gift--I am not an animal behaviorist nor have I rigorously studied the why and how of his behavior.  Whether he is motivated by a refined sense of smell, a special empathy, or somethine entirely different--your guess is a good as mine.  But I believe we can all learn from his example.

If you read this book, I am sure the stories of the Steere House residents and their families will stay with you for quite some time as will the mystery of how Oscar does what he does.  The news stories about Oscar made him into a bit of a Grim Reaper character; in reality, he is a welcomed comforter and companion.  The subtitle of the book, The Extraordinary Gift of an Ordinary Cat, sums up what you need to know about Oscar who reminds us all to be present and to live in the moment every day.

I particularly liked the chapter pages with the paw prints:

Here's a glimpse of Oscar:

Rating:  4/5 (Non-fiction Scale)

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