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Doctor’s book tells true story of Oscar, an uncanny cat

Doctor’s book tells true story of Oscar, an uncanny cat

When Dr. David Dosa, left, first began working at the Steere House Nursing and rehabilitation Cente

When Dr. David Dosa first began working at the Steere House Nursing and rehabilitation Center in Providence, R.I., he began hearing stories about a black-and-white cat named Oscar that had an uncanny ability to predict which patients were about to die by snuggling alongside them in their final hours.

“I didn’t believe it till I actually witnessed it,” he said recently in a phone call from his office at the nursing home.

Oscar has now made more than 50 correct calls, and he’s so accurate that the staff will call family members when the cat stretches beside the patients who are often too ill to notice his presence. If kept outside the room of a dying patient, Oscar will scratch at the doors and walls in an attempt to get in.

“In 2007, just on the spur of a moment, I wrote about this and sent it off to the New England Journal of Medicine,” said Dosa, “and when it was published, almost immediately it became this international sensation. Well, I was unprepared for all the attention.”

‘Making Rounds with Oscar’

Author: Dr. David Dosa

Published by: Hyperion, 225 pages

How much: $23.99

More info: On Monday at 7 p.m., Dosa will deliver a free lecture, “What can we learn from Oscar the cat?” at the Carl B. Taylor Community Auditorium on the campus of the Schenectady County Community College.

He was soon approached by a few people to write a book about Oscar, and this past February the book was published and quickly became an international bestseller.

Talk at SCCC

On Monday at 7 p.m., Dosa will deliver a free lecture, “What can we learn from Oscar the cat?” at the Carl B. Taylor Community Auditorium on the campus of the Schenectady County Community College.

“Initially, I said no to writing the book,” he said, “but then it occurred to me that this might be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I’ve always enjoyed writing. One my jobs is teaching at Brown University, and I’m always looking for unusual ways to get some of my points across about the elderly and dementia.”

He thought of the book as an opportunity to write about, and hopefully have readers begin talking about, the care of the elderly, a subject that he’s very passionate about.

“No one ever likes to talk about death,” he said. “It’s not something we chat about around the kitchen table, but there are some very big issues that arise when the people we love are dying. We need to make our wishes known to those around us about how we want to die.”

One of the most difficult aspects of writing the book was finding the time to do it. “I do have a day job,” said Dosa, “which I enjoy very much. This book did not stop me from seeing my patients or prevent me from doing all the other stuff I do such as my teaching and my research.”

He made a point of getting to a coffee shop at least four mornings a week for an hour or two to write. “I was consistent,” he said. “The book took about a year and a half to write, and when I’d leave the coffee shop I’d try not to think any more about the book and go about the rest of my day. I also have a young family at home and I needed to be there for them.”

Readers have responded very well. “I get satisfaction that people are picking up a book about a cat and learning a great deal about how to die with dignity. I used Oscar as a vehicle for telling the story of these residents.”

Animal companions

Oscar has now lived in Steere House for more than five years as part of the animal companion program, which began years ago. The mission of the program is to make Steere House more like a home than a nursing home, and Oscar and the other cats in the program often play with visiting children and prove a welcome distraction for patients, visitors, nurses and doctors alike.

“All this fame hasn’t gone to Oscar’s head,” Dosa said with a laugh. “We’ve also done a pretty good job of preventing people from getting in to see Oscar. He lives on a terminal dementia unit behind locked doors, and we allow in only the friends and family members of the residents on the floor.”

Dosa has a theory that perhaps Oscar perceives a pheromone or another smell emitted by a dying patient. His particular talent may also just be behavioral, that he’s imitating the nurses and staff at the hospital. “Whatever it is,” he said, “Oscar has provided great compassion to people at one of their most vulnerable times.”

At the age of 27, Dosa developed his own chronic illness, Psoriatic arthritis, which has changed his life. “I wake up every day and have difficulty getting out of bed,” he said. “The illness has made me a better doctor, though, because I’m more empathetic with my patients.”

He also believes it’s given him some better awareness of what his elderly patients are going through.

“We all get excited about a newborn baby,” he said, “and we rush in with our camera, but the end of life is also a part of life. A baby is cute and beautiful but also a blank slate. There’s nothing there except potential, but with the elderly, these are people with wonderful life stories and we should celebrate all they’ve done and accomplished. Everyone has a story to tell whether you’re the man on the street asking for money or the president of the United States. It’s just a matter of taking the time to listen to the story.”

Advice to caregivers

His advice for people who are taking care of an elderly parent or a sick spouse is to take care of yourself.

“Caregivers are often so gung-ho about taking care of mom or dad they often forget how much they matter in this equation. You’re not being a good caregiver to that other person if you get so run down that you get sick.”

The Open Door Bookstore is offering a 20 percent discount on the book if purchased ahead of time. Books will also be available at full price on Monday night, and Dosa will sign them.

For more information, call the Schenectady Library at 388-4533.

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