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Converted from paper version of the Broad Ripple Gazette (v07n15)
Howling at the Moon by Susan Smith
posted: Jul. 23, 2010

Howling at the Moon header

For four years our street has had a book club. In May our selection was Making Rounds with Oscar by David Dosa M.D. The book was newly released and the library hold list was smokin'. I had no idea what it was about and really didn't jump on it since it was going to be hard to get and I was busy planning my vacation. Recently I finished the book. It really moved me because it is about pet therapy, and my dog Patty is a "therapist" at Community Hospital.
You may have heard of Oscar when he made headlines in 2007. Oscar was featured in an article by Dr. Dosa which appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine, July 26, 2007, from which I quote:
"Since he was adopted by staff members as a kitten, Oscar the Cat has had an uncanny ability to predict when residents are about to die. Thus far, he has presided over the deaths of more than 25 residents on the third floor of Steere House Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Providence, Rhode Island. His mere presence at the bedside is viewed by physicians and nursing home staff as an almost absolute indicator of impending death, allowing staff members to adequately notify families. Oscar has also provided companionship to those who would otherwise have died alone. For his work, he is highly regarded by the physicians and staff at Steere House and by the families of the residents whom he serves."
When Dr. Dosa's essay was published, Oscar's story made international headlines. For several days, "Oscar the cat" was the most widely searched term on several web search engines. I saw some of the resulting media on morning TV. Oscar was being portrayed as the Grim Reaper and late night comedy was having fun with it. In February this year, the book about Oscar was released. Dr. Dosa hosted a book signing which served as a fundraiser for Steere House. The book's release, as well as the much deserved respectful media attention it has received, has been a wonderful opportunity for Steere House. This doctor, turned author, specializes in dementia. From him we are told that there are over five million people in the U.S. with Alzheimer's disease and hundreds of thousands more with less common forms of dementia. Dr. Dosa states:
"The third floor of Steere House is often the final stop for my patients. Many of them have forgotten almost everything they knew. They seldom remember the year they were married or the names of their children. They don't know how they made a living or where they were when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon. But they enjoy having the cats around-a love of animals seems to be among the last things to go. You could even say that in small ways, pets connect people to the lives they used to lead and the world they've mostly left behind."
The stories of his patients and their caregivers made me want to go to the Steere House web site. What a wonderful, caring place! Here's what they say about pets. . . .. "At Steere House, we believe in the therapeutic benefits of animal companionship. Throughout the years, Steere House has been home to a variety of animals, including a number of cats, parakeets, a floppy-eared bunny and several regular canine visitors, who all help to make the presence of animals and their comfort benefits a way of life at Steere House."
In a nutshell, the story of Oscar is how he lives among 41 patients in the dementia unit. He roams the halls and rooms and interacts daily with patients, staff and family, but is mostly aloof. Oddly, he can sense, within hours, when a patient is going to die. That is when he comes into the room and sits on the bed, often curling up with the patient. Many times he is the only visitor a patient has had. It is as if he is aware that his company is needed. If family is there, they take comfort in knowing that the end of this horrible disease will be over. He gives them peace and solace. Dr. Dosa interviewed family members and tells their stories. He tried to understand how this cat has made a difference and how he knew when it was their time. In the end, he never figured out Oscar's gift, but he listened and learned so much more about dementia that he shares with us. One man, Jack, said "you know, Oscar the cat was not just a distraction for my mother but was a distraction for me as well."
With his behavior, Oscar has helped to provide comfort and companionship when people have needed it most. Now five years old, Oscar still lives on the third floor unit where he continues to play an invaluable role in patients' end of life care. For his service to his patients, a local Hospice organization even awarded Oscar with their annual "Hospice Champion" award. As for me, I like a cat on my bed. Pets make you smile.
Dr. Dosa is a geriatrician at Rhode Island Hospital and an assistant professor of medicine at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University - both in Providence.

Susan Smith is a life-long area resident and is the owner of City Dogs Grocery located at 52nd and College. Send your pet related questions/comments to
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