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

Laura Williamson
Posted at 4:11 PM, Apr 10, 2023

CINCINNATI — When Laura Williamson went into the Army, she said she always knew there was the possibility of dying for her country. What she didn’t think about was 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 hit that forever,” Williamson said.

She went into the Army working as a mechanic serving in Germany. She said she was hand-picked to go 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.”

As a result, she always carries Epi-pens along with 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 your dead,” Williamson said.

Now, 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 the fact triggering scents are in an area. In addition, she will be able to sense when she’s having an attack and will bring her medication to her 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 which provides trained dogs for veterans.

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

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