K-9 hero relapses

December 5, 2010 • Local News

After battling two tumors earlier this year, Sage, a search and rescue dog raised in Roswell, has relapsed. The 11-year-old Hagerman border collie will have surgery at a cancer center for animals at Colorado State University Monday morning, her owner and handler said.

Veterinarians from the University of Pennsylvania, who routinely monitor canines like Sage that worked in the aftermath of 9/11, detected a thymoma tumor lodged deep between her lung lobes about two weeks ago.

“She’s hanging in there,” said Diane Whetsel, Sage’s handler, by phone while driving to Colorado.

Sage was originally diagnosed with dual tumors, one near her lungs and the other next to her heart, in February. She underwent a surgical [auth] thoracotomy, removing both the thymoma and the upper lobe of her right lung at the CSU Animal Cancer Center.

Whetsel said the relapse took her and Sage’s doctors by surprise.

“They didn’t expect a reoccurrence,” Whetsel said, adding the doctors will know more once they complete a PET scan, take more X-rays and conduct a biopsy.

Whetsel suspects that the tumors are a result of Sage’s work as a search and rescue dog. The well-decorated pup has deployed to many dangerous environments during her nine-year career searching for life in local, state and national emergencies.

She sifted through the rubble inside the Pentagon after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 as a FEMA disaster specialist, worked in Aruba during the search for Natalie Holloway and the Gulf Coast in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and deployed to Baghdad in 2007 and 2008 where she traveled to Iraq in a Blackhawk helicopter searching for fallen U.S. soldiers.

“I don’t know for sure if this is a result of 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina or dump sites we searched in Iraq,” Whetsel said. “She’s been exposed to so many toxic sites in her life, so we don’t know exactly where this came from … but it is a direct result of her service to this country.”

Members of the community rallied in support of the local American hero late last year by raising roughly $8,000 to cover Sage’s first surgery.

Whetsel said she will pay for Sage’s upcoming surgery and treatment, estimated at $3,000, using money left over from the last fundraising effort.

“It was pretty fantastic. It really was,” Whetsel said of the community’s generous support. “We’ve guarded those funds and have been very frugal with them. … We’re hoping that we’ll be able to cover (Monday’s surgery) without asking for the community’s help.”

For members of the community interested in supporting working dogs like Sage, Whetsel asks them to donate to the foundation created in Sage’s honor, The Sage Foundation for Dogs who Serve, at

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