Book review: Making the Rounds with Oscar by David Dosa

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‘It always gives me a shiver when I see a cat seeing what I can’t see,’ wrote 20th century English children’s author Eleanor Farjeon.

And Oscar, the hospital cat whose incredible gift is to sense when people are about to die, would certainly have sent tingles down her spine.

His almost psychic sensitivity to human beings made headlines around the world in 2007 and now American geriatrician Dr David Dosa, who specialises in the care of dementia patients, has put Oscar’s incredible story into words.

Dosa is an attending doctor at Steere House, an old people’s nursing home in Providence, Rhode Island, where resident cat Oscar is an inspiration and wonder to the medical staff.

His mere presence at a bedside is an almost absolute indicator of impending death and allows the doctors to inform families that the end is near.

Oscar, a seemingly ordinary black-and-white tabby, provides companionship to those who would otherwise die alone and gives comfort where others have failed.

And now his moving, extraordinary and sometimes funny story is set to win him a whole host of loving admirers.

When Oscar first came to live on the unit for patients with advanced forms of dementia, Dosa, who openly admits he is not a cat lover, was singularly unimpressed with the new arrival who spent his days hiding under beds or looking out of the window.

The aloof cat rarely mixed with the patients until one day staff found him nestled against the leg of a terminally ill woman.

Before long, he was regularly spending time only with residents nearing the end of their life, including those whose death was totally unexpected.

Oscar was, and still is, very protective of his patients, clawing anyone he thinks will disturb them and only leaving their side for a few minutes to grab some food.

Like dogs that can sniff out cancer and fish that can sense earthquakes before they happen, Oscar can see death approaching.

His presence provides comfort for both the patients and their relatives. The daughter of one dying woman told Dosa: ‘With Oscar at my side, well, I felt a little less alone.’ He reinforces the notion that death, like birth, is a natural process.

A scientist at heart, Dosa was determined to look dispassionately at the facts about Oscar and find a rational explanation to his deathbed vigils.

It was a journey of discovery for the doctor, not least because he never did find a scientific answer. And in the end it didn’t really matter...maybe Oscar has some extrasensory power of perception, maybe he’s a master of empathy or maybe caring is simply his superpower.

What Dosa did learn from his enquiries was far more about dementia, the disease that has destroyed his patients’ lives, than about the mysterious cat.

Making the Rounds with Oscar is not just a tribute to an amazing animal but a candid and heartfelt account of the devastation of living, and dying, with dementia.

A special book about a very special cat.

(Headline Review, paperback, £7.99)