When Oscar the cat first came to Steere House Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in the summer of 2005, he wasn't particularly friendly. He lived on the third floor unit, where the vast majority of patients are critically ill, often in advanced stages of dementia or Alzheimer's disease. He did his own thing — hiding behind medicine cabinets, sitting on windowsills and just generally keeping to himself. According to Executive Director and Administrator Julie Richard, he was not the "type of cat you curl up with as you read a book."
But a couple of months later, when Jack McCullough came to visit his gravely ill elderly mother, Oscar was sitting there, right by her side, just a few hours before she passed away.
The cat made national headlines after Assistant Professor of Medicine David Dosa published an article about him in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2007. Oscar has since appeared in a wide range of publications and television broadcasts. And now, Dosa is set to release a new book entitled "Making Rounds with Oscar: The Extraordinary Gift of an Ordinary Cat" Tuesday.
The book's title alludes to Oscar's ability to detect when patients are nearing death. Oscar keeps these patients companyin their rooms for their final hours. While Dosa said he was somewhat skeptical when he first heard about Oscar, it soon became clear to him and to the staff at the nursing center that Oscar was unique.
Richard further explained that the situation became apparent soon after the stray cat was brought in from a local animal shelter.
"Once in a great while, Oscar would basically position himself nearby or at someone's feet," she said. "We knew it was more than just typical catlike observation. It was an uncanny ability to be around at the right time ... and we noticed that at those times, the patients were always at the end of life."
Though fascinated by the story from the start, Dosa said that writing about his experiences with Oscar was "a spur-of-the-moment decision." After initially writing the shorter article in 2007, Dosa began receiving calls about Oscar from all over the world.
He was "originally reluctant," but Dosa ultimately decided to write the book. "One striking thing about all the publicity was that there was this sense that Oscar was really unusual (and) I thought it would be a nice idea," he said. "It was worth writing about it amidst all of the sound bites."
Patients' families have had a largely positive opinion of Oscar's presence, Dosa said. Though many of the 41 patients at the home have lost the ability to communicate and express their opinions about the cat, their families enjoy the company Oscar provides.
"My fear initially was that there would be a mass exodus, but the converse is actually true," said Dosa. "People find his presence important."
Oscar was present during the final days of both McCullough's mother and aunt.
"When you're going through the grieving process, it's interesting how you'll accept anything that gives you comfort," said McCullough, who used to work at Alpert Medical School. "So when something as gentle as a kitty cat comes over, you go ahead and accept it."
And even though the patients may not be able to verbalize their thoughts, McCullough said that his mother — along with other patients — loved Oscar and the other cats that call Steere House home.
Richard stressed that the cat's ability is not strange. "Oscar is not a harbinger of death and it is not some bizarre mythical-like ability," she said. "That is totally false."
Aside from the great amount of comfort Oscar brings to patients and their families, both Dosa and Richard said there is other significance in Oscar's story and the book that has now been published to recount it.
"Twenty years ago, no one would ever have an animal companion in a nursing home," Dosa said. "We've come to grips with the notion that animals are important and lots of study on animals in health care institutions has been done."
Richard added that the book and the story it tells will get people "to talk about an aspect of care in this country that many people don't want to talk about." She explained that institutions like Steere House are "not about a procedure or some fancy clinical intervention but rather about good, old-fashioned care."
But for McCullough, the book means something different. "Reading the chapter about my mother and aunt became a catharsis for me. It helped me to heal."
If the book helps another reader find hope, "then I know I did the right thing by telling my story," he added.