SO U DONT GETS COLD FEETZ
MSNBC calls two-year-old hospice cat Oscar a "furry grim reaper," but that couldn't be more wrong. The Grim Reaper personifies death, brings death, is death. Oscar merely heralds it, and that is incidental to his mysterious mission.
In the dementia wing at Steere House Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Providence, the cat has foretold the deaths of over 25 patients by curling up beside them in bed within four hours of their expiring. It's gotten so that if Oscar lies down with someone, the nurses hurry to call the person's family, he's that unerring
After about six months, the staff noticed Oscar would make his own rounds, just like the doctors and nurses. He’d sniff and observe patients, then sit beside people who would wind up dying in a few hours. [...]
[Dr. David] Dosa[, a geriatrician at Rhode Island Hospital], said Oscar seems to take his work seriously and is generally aloof. “This is not a cat that’s friendly to people,” he said.
Oscar is better at predicting death than the people who work there, said Dr. Joan Teno of Brown University, who treats patients at the nursing home and is an expert on care for the terminally ill.
She was convinced of Oscar’s talent when he made his 13th correct call. While observing one patient, Teno said she noticed the woman wasn’t eating, was breathing with difficulty and that her legs had a bluish tinge, signs that often mean death is near.
Oscar wouldn’t stay inside the room though, so Teno thought his streak was broken. Instead, it turned out the doctor’s prediction was roughly 10 hours too early. Sure enough, during the patient’s final two hours, nurses told Teno that Oscar joined the woman at her bedside. [...]
Most families are grateful for the advanced warning, although one wanted Oscar out of the room while a family member died. When Oscar is put outside, he paces and meows his displeasure. [...]
Oscar recently received a wall plaque publicly commending his “compassionate hospice care.”
What's up with that?!
Here's an account of Oscar's behavior from the original article in The New England Journal of Medicine by Dr. Dosa (which I paid to read):
Making his way back up the hallway, Oscar arrives at Room 313. The door is open, and he proceeds inside. Mrs. K. is resting peacefully in her bed, her breathing steady but shallow. She is surrounded by photographs of her grandchildren and one from her wedding day. Despite these keepsakes, she is alone. Oscar jumps onto her bed and again sniffs the air. He pauses to consider the situation, and then turns around twice before curling up beside Mrs. K.
One hour passes. Oscar waits. A nurse walks into the room to check on her patient. She pauses to note Oscar's presence. Concerned, she hurriedly leaves the room and returns to her desk. 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. Chairs are brought into the room, where the relatives begin their vigil. The priest is called to deliver last rites. And still, 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. [...]
Oscar has also provided companionship to those who would otherwise have died alone.
The detail I highlighted was omitted from the MSNBC story, but it seems key. It is hard to avoid the impression that Oscar feels compelled at least to try to warm, and even more so to comfort, a dying person.
This might seem more bizarre to me if I had not witnessed a cat doing it for another cat. Max and Lucky were rivals in our household, usually irritated with each other. They'd "box" often and occasionally get into a real brawl Yet when Lucky was 16, blind, deaf, emaciated and dying of kidney failure, I was amazed and touched to see Max casually but deliberately lying down in contact with him, hindquarters touching. A cat does not do that by accident, least of all with a cat he is not friendly with. It looked as if he was trying to comfort and orient Lucky, to not let him feel alone. I've actually called him Dr. Max since then.
I don't know if Oscar is helping Grandma get to heaven or wherever (which would make him a psychopomp -- more here and here), whether he instinctively tries to warm and revive one of his "kittens" whose body is cooling (I've read that cats patiently present us with slain mice because they regard us as retarded kittens that need remedial hunting lessons), or whether he feels compassion or something even more mysterious in the presence of impending death. Whatever, it's the kind of story it gives me sadistic pleasure to watch hard-line Darwinians tie themselves in knots trying to explain away.
UPDATE: I guess you'd have to call him The Last LOLcat.