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A dog's sense of smell becomes life-saving tool for Army veteran exposed to Agent Orange, mustard gas

Laura Williamson
Posted at 4:00 PM, Apr 11, 2023

CINCINNATI — When Laura Williamson went into the Army, she said she always knew there was the possibility of dying for her country. She didn’t think about the possibility that decades after her service she’d be fighting each day to stay alive.

“I’ve had thyroid cancer twice. I've had aggressive systemic mastocytosis. I now have mastocytosis of the GI tract, but that just stays - I'll have that forever,” Williamson said.

She went into the Army, working as a mechanic serving in Germany. She said she was hand-picked to go to work in Edgewood, Maryland, as part of a special unit tied to nuclear, biological, chemical and radioactive weapons.

“We were exposed to multiple biological and chemical warfare agents,” she said. “Sarin, mustard gas, Agent Orange.”

Williamson said her ailments of today are a direct result of the exposure. In addition, she says the exposure to those toxins has left her with life-threatening anaphylaxis.

“If I walk in somewhere where there's bleach, my throat just swells, my tongue will swell over again in hives,” she said. “If someone's wearing patchouli or lavender, which are also the basis of a lot of colognes and perfumes - Lysol aerosols, my lungs can't tolerate [it].”

As a result, she always carries Epi-pens, needles, and vials of Benadryl to counter the attacks. It’s a situation her children fear the worst will happen.

“My son had said, like, in the morning, if my door is shut, he won't come to my room until I come out because he's like, I'm not gonna be the one to find you dead,” Williamson said.

Soon she will have some relief and a four-legged battle buddy to help sniff out problem scents before she has a medical issue.

The organization Educated Canines Assisting with Disabilities (ECAD) has spent months training a black Labrador by the name of Toucan who will be able to alert Williamson to triggering scents in her area. The dog will be able to sense when she’s having an attack and bring her medication or bark to alert others.

“I'm going to be able to go outside, go places without the fear,” Williamson said.

Toucan was made possible by a $50,000 donation to ECAD’s Project Heal, providing trained dogs to veterans.

It’s a gift that provides relief to Williamson and her family.

“Toucan will alert if something goes wrong, and just the relief that gives them that they can relax and know that if something goes wrong, she's going to bark she's going to get them is an amazing blessing to me,” Williamson said. “You know, it takes something off their shoulders.”

This story was originally published by Scripps News Cincinnati.