Full Circle

March 11th, 2012 by Turner Simkins

The band of brothers atop Currahee.
“We stand alone together. “

“I just thank God for all the blessings.”
– James Brown –

Gasping atop the steps leading from the Mississippi to our home-away-from home atop the bluff in Memphis, the remaining warmth from the setting sun cascaded itself around the gigantic steel girders of the railroad bridge in front of me. Looking up, it was blinding. For a few seconds, the bridge’s silhouette was burned into eyes, as I closed them and covered my face with my hands. It dawned on me that I may have just finished my last run along these banks, as a regular-quasi-Memphian, and began walking home along the path atop the bluff. Thinking back to the countless times I made this same walk home, exhausted, but each representing a different point along the full spectrum of human emotion, from sublime fear to tearful gratitude. For this walk, I walked among the latter part of the scale. The sharp black and orange image of the bridge remained sharply fixed. Closing my eyes again, I could see the entire image; a traverse across one of nature’s mightiest forces, made by man and overcoming what was once impassable.

As the picture faded, my eyes opened to a hillside of daffodils and azaleas in bloom amidst a swirl of leaves from last fall that have yet to be cleaned from the path. Everything about this day, and indeed this last trip to Memphis had been baffling beautiful, surprisingly difficult, and reassuringly good.

I make my way back to the little house that has provided such a comfortable haven for us for the past almost three years and recognize a group of runners who’s paths I have crossed before. It is February and everyone is in short sleeves. The mingling of fall leaves with the promise of the coming spring flowers reveals a season that does not know its place. Its neither winter nor spring and almost does not make sense. But it was there. It was beautiful and I am grateful.

We started our journey to Memphis for Brennan’s first annual physical, representing the first anniversary of the fourth bone marrow transplant. A milestone in its own right, as one year ago, while fervently praying for this day, there were times when it certainly looked like the wrong bet. Fortunately, the common thread holding our faith together has been consistently woven by the one little boy in our house who happens to represent the best that life has to offer, emanating love and courage at all times.

It was for Brennan that we felt it a good idea to accept our friend’s, Reab and Shell Berry’s, invitation to stop at their family home in North georgia on our way to Tennessee. Being one of those new fangled teacher-conference weekends, we found ourselves with a four day’s of no school. Tara and I saw it as an opportunity to complete a circle that had been left painfully unsecured since our last visit to Nacoochee over two years ago. Our last trip there had also been with our friends. But it was a weekend designed by friends to help relieve our minds of the seemingly hopeless sentence carried out by our doctors in Atlanta, who had declared that there was nothing left to do for Brennan but let time take its course.

That first trip was beautiful in its own odd right. The fall weather had been perfect and the children, all innocent to the anxiety we were feeling about the road ahead, played gleefully for what I thought was, potentially, the last hurrah with all three of our children together. That weekend occurred at the time of a crucially pivotable, and even miraculous, decision to take Brennan to St. Jude. But at that time, the decisions had not been made and the heaviness of what appeared to be an almost certain death sentence overwhelmed me almost constantly. I will never forget the weight of that blanket, at that time and for at the seemingly countless other times that it was cast upon us.

This trip, however, we were returning for what we prayed to be a positively eventful trip to Memphis. There was no weight, just the opportunity to return to a spot that had once been unfairly painted in doubt and foreboding. It was our intention this week to return with positive intentions, to whitewash old feelings with affirmation, reaffirming the place as that of inspired perseverance, not for the dark clouds cast over that time and place.

These were our intentions that weekend. They appeared to be realized as a matter of fact upon our arrival, as the boys all took off together with the Berry kids back to the same routine that kept them all enraptured in the fall of 2009, exploring the forests, playing army in the woods, talking about bears and making plans for extravagant trips to the candy store in the neighboring village. But the feelings were galvanized the next day, not by the kids themselves, but when we all toured the Easy Company 101st Airborne museum in the town of Toccoa and all made the trip to the top of Mt. Currahee. The men we can to honor and study, had been etched into our minds permanently due to Brennan’s fascination with the courage of the WWII soldier; particularly these, who were forced, over and over again, to lead the way through seemingly hopeless circumstances. “Currahee,” is Cherokee for “Stands Alone.” In addition to being a brutally fixed component of the Airborne’s weekly training regimen, as these men ran up and down the steep three miles of that mountain over and over, it became their motto. And on this particular saturday afternoon, the boys stood atop Currahee, proud and happy, almost as much as their parents who could not have been more emotional in feeling the significance of the opportunity for all of these boys to eventually stand there alone, together.

It was truly a meaningful weekend, finishing a circle that deserved completion.

Once in Memphis, though, a long week lay ahead. Brennan was booked to the gills every day with tests for every conceivable body and organ function, in addition to the standard tests for residual disease, GVHD, nutrition, etc. One of the first appointments of the morning was nutrition, which revealed that he had lost a full kilo since his last visit three weeks prior to. At the meeting three weeks ago, he also had lost weight, and it was made clear that, with Brennan’s increased activity and energy, he was beginning to burn more calories than he was taking in. The conclusion at that time was that Tara and I were to increase his g-tube feeds a a means of supplementing his caloric intake. Indeed every night since, Tara and I had prepared a full 500 ml bag of tube feeds, which were administered to him while he slept. We were feeing pretty good about what he was eating; and, in combo with what we were doing supplement-wise, felt positive that he was demonstrating some weight gain for the annual check-up. There was A LOT of emphasis put on his nutritional issues during that last visit; consequently, Tara and I felt that it would be a decisive matter during this evaluation, potentially affecting both his future medicinal regimen as well as his lifestyle restrictions.

But about two weeks prior to arriving, he started showing show GVHD-like digestive issues, manifest primarily with almost hourly bowel movements. consisting of very odd looking bowel produce.

While Tara and felt as if we had done what we could for him in order to get his weight headed in the right direction, the first thing we discovered was that his weight was down from the last visit (which, again, was down a full kilo from the visit prior to that.). The nutritionist and I discussed that the feeds he was taking in were so elemental (Vivonex is essentially a predigested food supplement made for “preme” babies) and therefore may have been too elemental for him at this stage.

This was the primary focus of that day, which effectively consisted of a more-than-comprehensive panel of blood work, capped off with the medieval style phlebotomy towards the end of the day. Ultimately, they made a decision to prescribe a more substantial nutritional supplement to see if we could help his digestive problems. We were given one can of the stuff and asked to test it overnight.

Help them, we did not. Affect them… we were right on target.

Falling asleep with B around 9:30, he shot out of bed at 11:30 or so and screamed, “I need a bucket!” Barely reaching him in time, he projectiled a straight shot of pure feeds into the waste basket and all over himself. I managed to unhook the g-tube feeder/pump and get his pajamas off while he sat him the nasty stuff crying when he then jumped out of bed and ran to the toilet to retch again. When he was through retching, he turned around and sat down for about 20 minutes trying desperately to relieve himself of the monster that appeared to dwell within his little digestive system.

As he sat there, I spread out clean towels on the bed and got him some new pajamas when he turned around to dry heave the other way. And so it went for an hour or so.

Tara woke up and concurred that I call the hospital. I reached the medicine room, which is the only outpatient portion of the hospital open 24 hours, gave them Brennan’s name, patient number and told them what was going on and that I would be brining him in. The new staff person on duty said, “I need to check with the attending physician before you can come in.” Knowing full well that Brennan’s medical records, not to mention his reputation, would eventually open the door, I told the nurse, “Great, you do that and I’ll come right over.”

He was provided IV fluids until he calmed down a bit, but the remainder of the evening and the next morning were consumed with retching and emergent dashes to the toilet. Holding my arms around his fragile little body as he rested his sleepy head on my shoulder as he has done so many times, I could feel virtually every bone in his back and shoulders.

I do not mean to belabor this detail; however, as the week progressed, and indeed every day since, it remains the only conspicuous issue that he is facing. After that long night, he was again put on IV fluids until he stabilized, thereby putting off the myriad list of procedures and tests off by a day. But by the time we left that Friday, everything evaluated, leukemia, GVHD and post transplant-wise, revealed a patient who was once again pushing the envelope of miracles.

His pulmonary function test was the first real examination that Tara and I approached with a reserved degree of trepidation and uncertainty. A year before, he tested at 60% of normal level. Indeed his pulmonary function had been compromised to such a degree that it represented the most contentious issue with regard to his qualification for a fourth transplant. We were told at that time by the examiner that it was not unusual to see this in allogenic transplant patients, and that many never recover. On this day, however, Brennan tested at 100% of normal function.

The gut issues subsided to a manageable degree as the week progressed and the IV fluids were stopped. And while he still was not feeling good in this particular area, this problem was eventually eclipsed by more good news with regard to virtually every test conducted. His bone density, which had been suffering due to osteopenic side effects from the chemotherapy tested “normal.” The MRI testing of his vascular function… “normal.” Chimerisim (again, the ratio of donor cells to his own) was 100% donor cells. And by the time we arrived home, the MRD analysis from his bone marrow biopsy revealed zero leukemic cells, even at a microscopic level. At the risk of boring the reader with the myriad details underlying the myriad of tests for which he was subject, suffice it to say that he nailed it (meaning everything).

The team at St. Jude has learned not to take Brennan for granted. He has defied every odd, surprised every expert and overcome so many seemingly insurmountable obstacles that, once again, when the results were all in, he had every one shrugging their shoulders in delighted bafflement. In the case of all transplant patients and their annual assessment, their is one final examination and meeting with the endocrinology team to establish a new baseline with regard to his essential physiological development (metabolism, sensory perception, and basic chemistry of the human body). Quite simply, everything seemed to be in order, al least when we left.

So with exception given to the digestive issues he had been experiencing, and which were unfortunately pushed beyond their limit that particular week, Dr. Leung met with all of us to map out an exit strategy that would effectively categorize Brennan as a success story.

“So Brennan,” he said, speaking to him as mentor to a prize student who was moving on to bigger and greater things, “how would you like to go back to school and be with your friends? Does that sound like a god plan for you?”

Brennan beamed, with a look revealing as almost as much astonishment as Tara and felt inside. “I want to do that more than anything,” he said.

“You know most kids are trying to find ways not to go to school and you are telling me that you are excited to go back,” he said. “Yes sir,” said Brennan with a smile.

“Well then I think you should go home, and assuming that we can wean you off of these medications over the next 30 days without any surprises, that should be your plan. It is time for you to be with your friends and to start showing your buddies how good of a golfer you plan on becoming.”

“Does that mean he can go fishing after this?” I asked. “Sure” said Dr. Leung. Looking at Brennan, he said, “I see no reason that by spring break you should not have to wear that blue mask over your handsome face wherever you go.”

The terms of the deal were pretty simple; wean him from the nasty steroids and dangerous immune suppressant medications over the next month. With no symptoms of GVHD, he would be free to eliminate the mask, eat normally and begin re-assimilating himself into life as a normal (guardedly normal) kid back home.

With regard to the digestive issues, Dr. Leung told us to stop the g-tube feeds and to simply give his body an opportunity to reestablish a normal nutritional cycle, eating when he is hungry versus, pumping nutrition into him at odd hours of the day (i.e.: when he is sleeping). “The body is designed to get hungry, and it may take a while, giving him small meals throughout the day as an infant is provided regular opportunities to eat a little bit throughout the day. He may even lose a some more weight, but time will take care of him.”

Tara, Brennan and I walked out of the hospital in quiet astonishment. We could not wait to break the news to the brothers at the end of their school day at Maria Montessori (and what a better place to break the news than in front of all of our new life-long family of friends who have played such a vital role in all of our lives over these past three years).

We crested the bridge to Mud Island on what was now a sunny warm spring-like day in February. The mighty river heaved in pulses of gentle waves and swirls, swiftly on their path to home in the gulf so many miles downstream. A barge weighted to the limit was slowly making its way upstream, exerting every bit of energy within its capacity to find its destination beyond the forces of resistance that both defined its path and constrained its intentions.

It was Ash Wednesday. And after a gloriously carefree afternoon of children playing carefree, without any preoccupation of worry regarding our next hurdle, high-fives and hugs were concluded with sincere yet equivocal plans to meet again in the future.

The suggestion that we make the 5:30 service at St. Mary’s church near the hospital for the Ash Wednesday service was accepted by all three boys with unusual elation affirmation. For me and Tara it was yet another non-coincidental coincidence, that aptly established the appropriate spiritual portal for our journey home the next morning.

The astonishment and gratitude surrounding our feelings about this day were blessed with a certain degree of clarity, as we all quietly sat through this service marking the official commencement of a new season of preparation and reflection. With such pronounced fear and uncertainty surrounding our lives one year ago (or even this past Fall), we, like the cycles of life and the seasons of this world, had clearly come full circle. Such intense experience is not easily mitigated by time, particularly with everything still so tangibly real about what we had just learned, where we were and what we were now focusing on. The liturgical season of contemplation, where one is asked to assess what has happened in their lives and how their intentions can be directed towards yet another opportunity for rebirth, had fallen directly on our heads and in our hearts on this day that seemed so improbable, not just last last year, but just days before. The priest aptly reminded us that the season is not about sacrifice but the lessons taken from changes in life. How many lives have become intertwined with ours which have delivered us this opportunity to leave this place; and this service, prepared to fully recognize that the gift is not something new, but something which we hold at all times.

The children for whom we have grieved and for whom we continue to pray; the ancestors whom we never knew but who’s lives still find sanctuary in our lives; the friends, doctors and counselors whose sacrifices and love remain fixed within hearts; they all represent treasures to keep as we continue down life’s path.

Arriving back in Augusta, the Lenten Rose in our back yard was once again in bloom, now a fixed annual reminder of the spiritual struggles we have faced over the past three-plus years and will face as the seasons turn over and over again. It bloomed the first year of Brennan’s illness. It blooms today.

A frightening storm had passed our home just hours prior to our arrival that evening, and had stirred up even more dregs from the season before, mixing dead limbs and leaves from last spring among the new life that was emerging from this one. The new season, beautiful and new. The old season, with its degenerating physical presence feeding the hope and intentions that lay before us this day, may not be as it was, but it lives within us.

Now home, the weaning is underway. So far so good with regard to the gradual removal if his immune suppression medications. This, of course, will be the ultimate test as to whether or not Brennan indeed will soon reintegrate himself as a semi-normal ten-year-old back home. The gut issues persist, however. Tara and recently I had been worried to the extent of both calling our medical team here in Augusta as well as considering a trip back to St. Jude.

Fortunately (in a manner of speaking), we recently discovered that the blood-work associated with the endocrinology test on his last day in Memphis showed that his pancreas was virtually not functioning, thereby defining what is most likely the primary reason that he is still unable eat regular meals and why he still suffers from very painful digestive issues. New pancreatic enzymes have been prescribed, which he has just started taken, and are intended to jump-start his pancreas and to hopefully allow him to realize the normal nutritional cycle predicted by Dr. Leung.

Do we worry about it? Certainly. But we also know that the residual affects of his disease and treatments are unlikely to every just go away (But with Brennan? Who knows?). Either way, he has taught us to take the best from our experience while recognizing that our intentional gratitude for the moment is imperative as we prepare for whatever the next season has in store. Spring will create fresh new leaves of summer, which will in turn, in blazes of colorful glory, hold on until the wind frees them of their physical shackles and delivers them back into the earth. We just happen to be in one of those confusing, but promising in-between phases that will change.

Brennan told me the morning after we arrived home, “you know daddy, I am glad that I get to go fishing again, but I really want to be back in school more than anything. I love our days together, but I really want to be with my friends.”

I love our days together too. For me (and Tara), splitting our time between work and days with Brennan at home has been one of the most wonderful gifts of my life. One way or another, though, these days too will change and he will be free to share his life and his spirit with his friends he has known and and the children he is yet to know. Full circle. Its been a powerful lesson.

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40 Responses to “Full Circle”

  1. March 11, 2012 at 5:00 pm, Jack Adamson said:

    Awesome news and I am so glad to hear, let us know how those enzymes work on the pancreas. Love and prayers always.


  2. March 11, 2012 at 5:20 pm, Nate Portinga said:

    Brennan is a shining star and beacon of hope for those who continue to struggle with Leukemia. May the struggles he has had to endure and allowed those who fought to find a way to this day, be one that is shared with many.

    God works in strange and mysterious ways as we all know. Through the power of prayer, the physical, mental and emotional strength of Brennan and those who surround him as well as those who said “let’s try one more time!,” the fight went on and prayers have been answered.

    Have fun in school Brenny. I know many have missed you dearly and can’t wait to have you back in class. And, when you get to the water and cast your line afar, nail a biggin’!

    Nate Portinga
    Wilmington NC


  3. March 11, 2012 at 5:23 pm, Brenda and Tom Barnes said:

    How truly inspirational is Brennan and your family. As our preacher asked today………where have you seen God this week………it is in your steadfast faith.


  4. March 11, 2012 at 5:27 pm, Elizabeth Klump said:

    Our God is so good and Brennan is such an inspiration for all of us who dare to not find thanksgiving in every day. Thank you for sharing the good news and we will pray that his pancreas gets back to normal soon.

    The Klump Family


  5. March 11, 2012 at 5:35 pm, Tara Salley said:

    Praise God from whom all blessing flow!
    Brennan is truly God’s miracle.


  6. March 11, 2012 at 5:47 pm, Allison and Brent Smith said:

    What a true blessing! We are so happy for you and pray that Brennan continues to heal.


  7. March 11, 2012 at 6:02 pm, Ed and Linda Lake said:

    Dear turner and Tara,

    Thank you for the updates! Whenever we get to feeling tired or down, all we have to do is think of your trials, tribulations and jubilation and our worries are put in perspective. We don’t know how you do it, but we know you couldn’t do it without a strong faith in God. May God continue to bless your family.



  8. March 11, 2012 at 6:16 pm, Helene and Mel Shuter said:

    We are so happy and grateful. Please keep us updated on his progress and we want to know when he goes back to school and golf. Our prayers are answered.


  9. March 11, 2012 at 6:31 pm, Mike Last said:

    This is awesome news. To go from 60% to 100% pulmonary function in a year’s seems miraculous to me. Thanks for sharing this. I’m so happy for you and your family. I can’t tell you how your updates put things in perspective for me.


  10. March 11, 2012 at 6:36 pm, Anna Waller Robbins said:

    Wonderful news!!!


  11. March 11, 2012 at 6:38 pm, Carey Daniel said:

    What a wonderful post! God is good and we are so happy for Brennan!


  12. March 11, 2012 at 6:56 pm, Daddy Tom said:

    I know that when you stepped into the darkness of the unknown, not only did God give you something solid to stand on, He also taught you to fly. Brennan and all of you have been an inspiration to everyone. Your Faith is unsurpassed and you know, that’s what Faith is all about. What a wonderful update and you need a picture of his first day back at school.

    One more thing Brennan. Bet you can’t hit me again with a water balloon.

    Love to all,
    Daddy Tom


  13. March 11, 2012 at 7:04 pm, Elle Rivers said:

    WOW- chills. You captured so much- so so so so thankful that you have witnessed a true miracle. Hoping you find your new normal. Way to go Brennan!

    (friends of Patrick)
    Team Rivers


  14. March 11, 2012 at 8:07 pm, marci maurer-nunnery said:

    Oh, praise God ! What a beautifully heartfelt letter to all ofus that have been praying for you all and especially Brennan. He is going to be so great and healthy. He has a special angel watching over him …Patrick and Brennan is going to be stronger every day ….we will continue to lift you all in Prayer. Blessings and JOY and Pax,Marci ,Doc ,Trey and Shockley


  15. March 11, 2012 at 8:09 pm, Michael and Anne Brady said:

    We are ecstatic to hear that Brennans checkup went so well! Praying for a speedy resolution to his digestive issues. I am proud to have met your miracle of a son, percentages and odds don’t apply to heroes like Brennan!


  16. March 11, 2012 at 8:22 pm, Mary and Steve Howard said:

    Wonderful news!! Brennan and your whole family are truly phenomenal – so happy for you guys!


  17. March 11, 2012 at 9:16 pm, Andrea said:

    I love you guys! : )


  18. March 12, 2012 at 4:33 am, Russell A. Gray said:



  19. March 12, 2012 at 5:47 am, Lee Pritchard said:

    Love the non-coincidence coincidence of the Ash Wed timing. We can’t wait to see you all again. Much love from the Pritchard family.


  20. March 12, 2012 at 6:34 am, Beth Smith said:

    So good to hear all of the good news.. Brennan is truly a miracle and I am soo happy for you with everything coming together for you and you will soon be back in school with your friends how amazing is that. I pray for your digestive issues to work out.. Thinking of you all, Beth


  21. March 12, 2012 at 6:58 am, Zac Ives said:

    Really glad to read this update. Sending big love.


  22. March 12, 2012 at 7:44 am, Betty Fau said:

    I am so very grateful that Brenny is beating the odds and is able to begin returning to a normal life. Our God is an awesome God!


  23. March 12, 2012 at 7:46 am, Stephen Chance said:

    Good job Brennan! Sounds like a rendezvous in the mountains is not far away! Need to put out a fire together!


  24. March 12, 2012 at 8:32 am, Marilyn Shannon said:

    It has been an honor to pray for and to feel a part of such an outstanding and believing family. God has truly blessed you
    all as you have been a blessing to all who have been on this
    journey with you via your updates. Thank you for sharing you
    lives. God bless you always Brennan.


  25. March 12, 2012 at 9:29 am, Monika and Family said:

    I am so HAPPY for you all.
    You are always in my thoughts.
    You have inspired your friends in ways you couldn’t imagine!
    We love you!


  26. March 12, 2012 at 12:43 pm, dacaye said:

    To all of you,I have been praying and have
    You in my heart.always.


  27. March 12, 2012 at 12:44 pm, dacaye said:

    Many many blessings to all of you.Deborah


  28. March 12, 2012 at 4:50 pm, BOB MISTER said:



  29. March 13, 2012 at 5:09 am, Julie Ferris said:

    We are so thrilled to hear this amazing news about Brennan. Prayers have been answered! I pray all goes well these next 30 days so that he can go back to school and be with his friends.


  30. March 13, 2012 at 5:20 am, John Moss III said:

    We are thankful for Brennan’s courage, God’s Grace and Believing in Miracles. Brennan, lets go fishing. I have a pond full of fish needing catching!


  31. March 13, 2012 at 6:13 am, Jeanne Hyder said:

    So thankful for the blessings that have poured into and from Brennan. Mattie has taken digestive enzymes since we cut an x in the nipple of her bottle to get them in her 18 years ago. They have worked wonders for Mattie and we pray they will for Brennan. Congratulations on the wonderful news!


  32. March 13, 2012 at 3:47 pm, Kimberlee Wood said:

    Powerful and moving writing Turner!! You all have stayed so strong. It can only be by the grace of God. Thank you for sharing the progress and the blessings. Congratulations on the fabulous news!


  33. March 14, 2012 at 1:53 pm, Susan Todd said:

    I thank the Lord for Brennan’s recovery. What an absolute testimony to answer to prayer! Will continue to pray for the proper functioning of Brennan’s pancreas. Thank you for sharing your journey of faith with us all. May your family’s experiences encourage and strengthen others as we deal with each of our own trials.


  34. March 14, 2012 at 9:47 pm, Amy Davis said:

    I look…. and pray daily @ Brennan’s progresses, slips and successes. He IS my hero!!! All of your family’s convictions, love and never-ending hope AND never give up attitude has been…and will be an inspiration to me and family/friend’s challendges for the past years as well as years to come!! God bless you all and PRESS ON!!!!!! I know some of you/family personally but,…… can not wait to meet this VERY special warrior in person very soon!!! Brennan—-YOU ROCK KIDDO!!!!!
    P.S. I’d love to fish w/you one day…..crappie, bass, catfish and if you’d like we can go up to our small cabin in Blue Ridge and hook some sweet trout!!! My personal table favorite!!! YUM YUM!!!!!


  35. March 15, 2012 at 6:11 am, Bob Fitts said:

    Great news, Turner. Glad y’all are back home.


  36. March 18, 2012 at 6:29 pm, Stella Terrana Kasten said:

    What great news. I can’t wait to see the fish you catch. We lift y’all up in our daily prayers. My kids light candles for Brennan almost every week at Mass. Thank you for writing. Blessings to you all.



  37. March 18, 2012 at 6:33 pm, Mike Watkins said:

    This is great news indeed. Great news, beautifully shared. I’m out of the country now but back on March 23. When you get a minute, give me a ring? Bobby has the number.


  38. March 21, 2012 at 4:29 pm, Judy Nokes said:

    So glad you guys are home! I hope all is well and the boys are enjoying their school days!


  39. March 23, 2012 at 4:38 pm, Tanya Strickland said:



  40. April 02, 2012 at 9:54 pm, gloria chastain said:

    great to have you all home. god is good turner. best news ever.


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