What Oscar knows that doctors don’t know

Years ago the family cat, usually aloof, suddenly decided to spend time on my father-in-law’s lap months before he died of pancreatic cancer. Why? Another family reports in a Toronto newspaper that their pet feline recently began a vigil on a loved one’s lap just before he died. So what did the cat know that wasn’t taught to me at The Harvard Medical School?

The New England Journal of Medicine, not noted for publishing trivia, surprised doctors several years ago by publishing a photo of Oscar, the cat. This male feline had become famous for his uncanny ability to predict death.

Oscar did not have a noble background. Rather, he had been saved as a young kitten, by staff members of a geriatric nursing center. They bailed him out of an animal shelter. Little did they know he was headed for celebrity.

It wasn’t too long before staff members noted that Oscar had a knack for knowing when a patient was about to die. Nurses at Steere House Nursing Center, in Providence R.I., reported that Oscar ‘would snap to attention’ when he sensed the end was near for a patient.

It was like an army drill. His routine rarely varied. He would arrive at the patient’s bedside four hours before death occurred and curl up alongside the patient. Often he would be purring, paying attention to the patient’s breathing, while family members gathered and the priest administered last rights. Then when death finally came he would quietly leave the room.

During that time, while I was visiting Rhode Island, I got first-hand reports about Oscar. When I asked nursing staff, “What’s his track record?” They told me Oscar had not missed a diagnosis in 25 deaths.

What a great batting average! Luckily, he had limited his death vigil to elderly patients in a terminal care facility. But Oscar could scare you to death if, aware of his diagnostic skills, you were scheduled for surgery in a few hours, and Oscar suddenly took a fancy to your bed. Any one in his right mind would get dressed and go home.

The big question is how does Oscar, who didn’t graduate Summa Cum Laude from medical school, know so much about approaching death? Doctors I talked to at Steere House didn’t have an answer. But they had several theories.

Some personnel believe that Oscar, and cats in general, are sensitive to the human world and great observers of human routine. They contend he watches the increased activity that occurs in a patient’s room prior to death. One doctor said, “He most likely enjoys the warm blankets placed around a patient at that time.” Others believe it’s a lack of movement that attracts Oscar as the dying patient in bed becomes quiet.

I question that theory. Oscar, like other animals, lives in a world of scents rather than sight. His vision is 10 times less than humans but his sense of smell is 14 times stronger. So when he cuddles up to a patient he has 200 million odour cells compared to our mere five million. I talked to several specialists who believe that certain chemicals are released when a patient is dying, and Oscar detects the odour.

I’m sure the secret will die with Oscar. But Oscar’s uncanny ability to detect the time of death took my thoughts back decades ago when I was hotel doctor at The Manoir Richelieu in La Mal Baie, Quebec.

A 90-year-old Baptist minister from Texas was a guest of the hotel along with his two daughters. He suddenly became ill due to a heart condition and refused to go to the local hospital. He claimed if he was going to die he would prefer to do so looking over the St. Lawrence River. At one point he became so close to death I relieved his nurses. I’d wait by his side until he died.

But he did not die. And in a few days, much to our surprise, walked out of the hotel to return to Texas.

Oscar, where were you when I needed you? You could have saved a young doctor a lot of embarrassment.

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