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Friday, February 19, 2010

Courage--Why Pets Matter So Much to Us in Times of Trouble

As my mother lay dying, I held tight to Courage.
No, I don't mean a sense of bravery or a feeling that I could prevail. I mean Courage the Chihuahua, pictured above. (Or as his owner, my sister Jane, calls him, he's Courage the Chee-whoie-whoie.)

That tiny dog became my anchor in a rough and stormy sea. Mom's coma happened quite suddenly, and I was without the daily resources I usually depend upon to keep myself going emotionally. I was far from home, without my husband, and without my own dogs. I didn't have a car and I couldn't use my typical lifeline, the computer. Like a spaceman in zero gravity, I had a hard time finding my balance.
Our mother's sick room was my world. Courage was my comforter. Small and portable, he would crawl into my lap for petting. As I stroked him, I felt the tension and fear leave me. A sense of zen-like calm came over me. As long as I could lift my hand, run it over his tiny back, and start again, I could go on.

I could handle what was happening, handle the horror of watching my mother's body fail her, handle the anguish that came from realizing I couldn't ease her suffering, and handle the emptiness of the long future ahead without long as I could keep petting Courage.

Now I have confirmation my feelings weren't unique. I just finished reading "Making Rounds with Oscar," an extraordinary book by David Dosa, a geriatrician who works at Steere House Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Providence, RI. Seems that Oscar (pictured below) would instinctively know when a patient was dying. The little cat made it his duty to be there as a sort of handmaiden to the process.

When Oscar's "talent" was first reported to Dr. Dosa, he dismissed it. Nothing in his scientific background could explain Oscar's intimate knowledge. Indeed, if you've ever lost a family member, you know the answer to the question, "How much time does she have?" yields wildly inaccurate responses. Health professionals are the first to admit how hard it is to predict someone's demise.

Yet, Oscar proved himself to be an incredibly accurate prognosticator of time of death. Dr. Dosa found this hard to believe. After all, most of the patients at Steere were in poor health. The doctor reasoned that Oscar simply noticed an increase in activity and followed the "crowd" to the room of any patient who was dying.
But even so, Oscar's abilities were hard to explain. One evening when two people were dying at once, Oscar sat with one patient until he passed and then raced out of the room to jump onto the bed of a second patient who died shortly thereafter.

Dr. Dosa decided to take a scientific approach and interview families who shared their loved ones' last moments with Oscar. The doctor quickly discovered that Oscar's predictive talents were not nearly so important as the measure of relief his presence afforded grieving families.

One woman said, "I think of Oscar as my angel. He was here for my mother, and here for me, too. With Oscar at my side...well, I felt a little less alone." Another interviewee said, "...Oscar gave me the feeling this is all natural."
Since Oscar and Dr. Dosa had a rocky start--Oscar bit the doctor when they first met-- Dr. Dosa begins the book with a sense of skepticism. He accepts the presence of the cats in the nursing center (there are two on each of the three floors of the facility), but he doesn't really see the animals as intrical. In a way, Dr. Dosa thinks the center is doing the animals a favor by providing homes for these strays. At best, he sees them as decorative, a homey touch much akin to having living plants and hanging pictures on the wall.

All that changes as Dr. Dosa begins to explore the comfort Oscar provides to grieving families. Dr. Dosa writes, "Maybe we started adding cats to make this house feel more like a home. But I was starting to think they were the ones teaching us that what makes a home is a family."

Courage did the same for me. He reminded me that even though my mother was leaving us, I was surrounded by her legacy. We all loved her, and one of her gifts was her love of animals. Another was our love for each other. Nothing, not even death, could steal my mother's love from us.

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