Woman who put shelter pets first for years is now fighting cancer

FILE - A cancer diagnosis has forced Doris Willis to focus on herself for a while, instead of the animals to which she has devoted much of her life. (Photo credit: Doris Willis)

News 13's Person of the Week has devoted much of her life to animals, but cancer has forced Doris Willis to focus on herself for awhile.

Her colleagues at the Yancey County Humane Society have rallied around the woman who will always be part of their pack.

"She deserves to be the Person of the Week," said Director Renee Tomberlin.

At the small shelter in Burnsville, employees say no one is in it for the money.

By nature, this is a place where the animals come first. They're groomed for what is hopefully a forever home.

What employees lack in pay, they try to make up for on their mission to save lives.

"She has a heart the size of Mount Rushmore for the animals," Tomberlin said of Willis.

Earlier this year, Willis was diagnosed with abdominal cancer. The woman who once had boundless energy is in the hospital and forced to face her own mortality.

"She's one of the hardest-working women I've ever met in my life," said Kennel Tech Raeann Passno, who is one of the co-workers who see Doris as a mentor.

"I've always looked up to Doris. She just never stopped moving all the time," Passno said. "Even when she started getting sick, she was worried about the animals."

"It's awful," Tomberlin added. "It just tears your heart out because we all love her. Well, for the younger staff they think of her like a mother."

Passno started a GoFundMe page to help raise money for Willis' medical expenses.

"She is just a very selfless person, so I thought we should do something to help her raise money," she explained.

"She's just not doing very well," said Tomberlin, who is getting updates from Willis' daughter in the hospital. "And when she leaves the hospital, she's going to have to go to a rehabilitation center for a while before she comes home. Her home is right there."

Willis lives less than 50 feet from the shelter. For more than a decade, Yancey Humane's relied on her to be on site 24/7.

"Who could meet animal control officers out here, who could check on sick puppies, and that's what she has done for 12 years," Tomberlin explained.

For so long, Willis has lived selflessly for the pets at the shelter and being separated from them seems almost as difficult as her disease. Recently, Tomberlin told her she could be with the animals any time she wants to come back.

"Even if she isn't able to come back to work for a long time or forever, that we would set her up a chair in the lobby where she could just come out and hang out in the lobby and play with dogs, and see the comings and goings," Tomberlin told Willis.

That's exactly what she needed to hear.

"It made a big smile on her face," Tomberlin recalled.

For now, they carry on without her, rallying behind the woman who made herself at home in the work in she believes in.

"She's just caring towards everyone, including animals, obviously," Passno said. "It's a lot different. Doris is somebody that would kick us in the butt if we were going too slow."

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