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POLICING – A Career Full of Nightmares

POLICE OFFICERS AT SCENE OF DOUBLE HOMICIDE (PHOTO JGJ)
POLICE OFFICERS AT SCENE OF DOUBLE HOMICIDE (PHOTO JGJ)

It’s inevitable, we all have to sleep.

Sleep is required for essential things like body and cell repair, restoration and resurgence.

For many police officers, sleep can be a frightening thing.

Closing your eyes and drifting off to a peaceful sleep is simply not a reality for many officers in law enforcement.  It’s a time when police officers are vulnerable to the graphic images they store in their minds after being exposed to extraordinary events by virtue of their employment.  It’s a part of the job no one likes to talk about.

To serve and protect can mean many things.  It can mean attending fatal traffic accident scenes, grotesque murder scenes, accidental deaths, suicides or horrific industrial accidents.  It can mean being exposed to life & death situations that come from deadly force encounters that can haunt an officer with a variety of graphic images.

Using deadly force can be an extremely traumatic event for a Police Officer.

Images of the suspect closing ground, staring down the barrel of an offenders gun, the light reflected from a suspect’s edged weapon, the split second life or death decision, the recoil of the firearm or the look on the perpetrators face as he takes his last breath.

Combine these things with the intensity of taking a human life.

These incidents create imagery that can invade and infect a police officer’s mind.

If you didn’t know it, these events are all common occurrences in the City of Winnipeg.

As a recruit in field training it didn’t take long for me to experience my first traumatic incident.  It was an attempt suicide call.  A teenage girl calling 911 from a pay phone at Logan Ave and Main Street indicating she cut herself.

After placing her in the cruiser car I asked her where she was cut.  To my shock she nonchalantly rolled up her sleeves and exposed a dozen or more extremely deep horizontal lacerations on both of her arms.

Lacerations so deep they exposed muscle tissue and bone.  Lacerations so deep they were literally oozing what seemed like gallons of thick gooey crimson blood.

I did my best to take it all in stride but I feared the brave face I put on was going to be betrayed by the undeniable physiological changes I was experiencing, the dry throat, the intense sweating and light-headedness.

As graphic as these images were, it wouldn’t take long before they would become blurred by my exposure to increasingly horrific incidents.

Like the images imprinted on my mind from my first experience with a deceased person.

A sudden death call to a small green space off Ellice Ave where I would find the body of a deceased man who died of natural causes related to lifestyle issues.  A disturbing sight for my innocent eyes, a lifeless body, an empty shell, limbs contorted with the effects of rigor mortis.

His name is still fresh in my mind, the fact I can remember it twenty-six (26) years later should tell you something.

Not long after this I would witness the passing of a man who had been shot by a Police Officer.  I was in the hospital with a robbery suspect in the emergency department at the Health Sciences Center Hospital when the dying man was wheeled into the resuscitation room.

I watched in stunned silence as he became combative and then suddenly flat lined.  The intensity of the life saving attempts were overwhelming.

I was in a state of shock when I realized the man just died in front of my very eyes.  It was at this precise moment I realized I had to get fresh air or my ass was going to be on the emergency room floor.

A few urgent gulps of fresh air and I was back.  I somehow managed to put my brave face back on and got my head back in the game.

Then there was a Downtown house fire where a one year old baby girl perished, her body scorched and blackened by heat and flames.  Tiny limbs outstretched, fists clenched in a horrific death pose.

It was a surreal scene, hysterical people all around us, and me, struggling to be professional and do my job as opposed to doing the natural thing and succumbing to the overwhelming emotion I was feeling.

Countless suicides with horrific gun shot wounds to the head, lost souls hanging by the neck from electrical cords or ropes and crumpled up disfigured bodies of victims who decided to end their lives by jumping from tall buildings.

The graphic images in my mind would multiply one hundred fold by virtue of an eight (8) year assignment to the Homicide Unit.

Brutal gang killings, one of which featured a crack house door man who was shot pointblank in the face with a sawed off shot-gun.  Upon arrival to the scene I was stunned to see a four by four hole in the victims face and an empty cavern that was once called his head.

The stench of spent gunpowder in the air and wispy smoke still coming from the wound, brain matter on the walls and ceiling.

I saw it all, decapitations, dismemberments and disembowelments.

It wasn’t only the graphic scenes that stuck with me.

In April of 2000 I interviewed a young man named Stephen James Treller who reported his twenty (20) year old girlfriend Cory Dawn Lepp missing.  The problem was Treller’s story started to stink.

He did his best to play a game of cat and mouse with us but in the end, he broke the cardinal rule.

When you play cat and mouse, you should always know which one you are.  It turned out Treller was the mouse.

Hours later he confessed to killing Cory and agreed to lead us to the site where he disposed of her body.

That site turned out to be the crawl space under his grandmother’s cottage in Winnipeg Beach, Manitoba, a scenic resort town just north of the City of Winnipeg.

It was a beautiful, peaceful, sunny spring day.  One of those famous Manitoba deep blue skies above, not a cloud in sight.

The town was ultra quiet, the cottagers still dwelling in the City working their 9 to 5’s.  As I walked up to the cottage my stomach was churning with nervous anticipation.

As I knelt and shone my flashlight into the crawl space the tragic events previously described by Treller became very real.  There she was, a beautiful girl, her face angelic looking with no signs of stress or violence.

She looked so peaceful I couldn’t stop staring at her, it was as if I was trying to will her to open her eyes and come to life.

That, of course, would not happen.  Treller subsequently plead guilty to murder and received a life sentence with no chance of parole for a minimum of ten (10) years.

The images of Cory Lepp’s angelic face still visits me often.

In fact, when I close my eyes I can still see every graphic image from every tragic case I worked on.  As my nephew Tyler often tells me, “Your eyes cannot “un-see” what they have seen!”

Exposure to these kinds of incidents can cause sleep disruption, sleep deprivation, eating disorders, substance or alcohol abuse and worse, the destruction of a person’s faith in humanity.

Many of these images haunted me during the course of my career in Law Enforcement.

Thinking “happy thoughts” is a great concept but doesn’t work so well in the real world.  It takes a great deal of concentration and strategy to learn how to deal with these images and the emotional injury police officers experience.

Reliance on frequent exercise, good nutrition and retreating to the warmth and comfort of family is a good start.  Getting lost in the trusting arms of your lover, partner or spouse can help.

Opening your heart, sharing feelings and communicating with the people who care about you can help keep you from the unhealthy urge to bottle it all up inside.

Learning how to create a filing system to store these graphic images can be an effective strategy.  Putting the images into a folder, burying them with other data and then closing that imaginary drawer, it works for me.

If all else fails, seeking help from a qualified mental health professional should be considered.

Fear not, with a proactive approach and a little time, the images will surely start to fade.

The images I describe are familiar to almost every police officer who works or has worked a prime response cruiser car on the streets of their chosen City.

These are the reasons why police work is unique and simply cannot be compared to most other professions.  These are the reasons why we have to make sure we’re alert to the need to take care of the mental health of our police officers who are exposed to these types of critical incidents.

These are the reasons why police officers deserve our concern, support and respect.

Police officers are the ones who we call to do the dirty work, the ones who walk where others fear to tread, the ones who are there for all of us, no matter what, no matter when, no matter where and no matter how extraordinarily horrific a situation may be.

Horrific situations like the one that unfolded in Newtown, Connecticut.

The graphic images, the lifeless bodies of innocent children and the carnage present in that school will never be erased from the minds of the police officers who answered that call.

I, for one, am grateful there are still people out there who are willing to do this kind of work.

Now I lay me down to sleep……..

FOOTNOTE:

This post solely concerns the effects of critical incident imagery on Law Enforcement Officers.

I would also like to acknowledge these effects are often experienced by members of the Military and our First Responder Community, all of whom are equally deserving of our respect, concern and support.

(Previously published in The Power of Words 12-15-12)

42 Comments

  1. Jon,

    Thank you for sharing your story.

    It’s extremely compelling and powerful and will go a long way to help reduce the stigma attached to EMS and Police work related emotional trauma.

    I commend you for having the courage to share your experience and thank you for encouraging our front line officers to seek help when its needed.

    Appreciate you and thank you for your service.

  2. I am a police officer in a small Northwestern Ontario city. I have experienced many situations which I would like to forget. One of which took place on September 19th/2012. Myself and 2 fellow officers enetered a river to rescue 2 individuals. Having to act quickly I was able to remove my Kevlar vest and duty belt. I did not have time to remove my boots or parts of my uniform. As I entered the water it was bone chilling and took by breath away. As I neared the middle of the river I began to loose my strength and struggled to stay above the water. My hands were very cold and I was not able to use my fingers to untie my boots or unbutton my shirt. After some struggling I was able to rip my uniform shirt off to reduce some of the weight. It became aparent that I was in danger of drowning and had to do what I could to save myself. I was able to struggle to shore while my partners who were able to get life jackets were able to save the male and female. By the time we reached shore additional officer, paramedics along with firefighters arrived to help. The firefighters helped me out off my wet clothes and I was loaded into the ambulance with the female who became unconscious due to the amount of water she ingested. It was shocking to watch her as her vital signs became absent. Once at the hospital the doctors and nursing staff were able to revive her. It was discovered that she was pregnant. Both her and the male were extremely intoxicated.

    A while after this took place the female died. I still see the male around quite often.

    After this incident I began to struggle with being able to carry out my duties as a police officer. I lost sleep, had terrifying flashbacks and nightmares. I became consumed with the thought that I was going to die at work and my son who was 2 year old son who I had custody of would be left fatherless.

    I struggled with this for almost 4 years before I finally sought help from a doctor. I have been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I should have reached out sooner but I thought I could handle things on my own. My pride kept me from showing how much this event changed my life.

    To this day this incident still brings tears to my eyes. I am thankful for everyday I have and for the strength I found to make it out of the water

    To all the men and women who have dealt with a traumatic experience seek help. There are countless professional who are very well trained and can help.

    You are not alone.

  3. Kellye;

    We’re only alone if we choose to be.

    There are plenty of people out there who care and want to help.

    Thank you for reading and reaching out…

  4. This article came just in time
    I feel like I’m not alone
    I know
    I’m not alone
    Thank you
    James

  5. I dream in Red
    I dream of the people I couldn’t save, couldn’t help, the many that died in my arms. 
    I dream of being totally covered in a suicidal soldier’s blood, after he slashed his wrists and wrestled with me when I tried to staunch the flow of blood.
    I dream of the man who’s truck engine tore through his lower body when he slid off the road and hit a wall.  I dream of the smell of his flesh as he cooked on the engine. I dream of holding his head together, all the while knowing that if another car comes along and hit us, I’m dead. I see him looking at me every time I close my eyes at night. I see him staring back at me in shock. 
    I dream in red.
    I dream of walking into a deserted office and looking down at a live IED some nutcase decided to try and kill office workers with.
    I dream of a tiny seven year old boy flung from his parents car, now lying broken and torn to pieces on the highway. 
    I dream of wrestling with the dead boy’s hysterical mother, both of us covered in his blood as she screams and tries to reattach his tiny severed leg. I see that young boy every single night in my dreams. 
    I dream of the Sailor who was so depressed that he shot himself in the head with a 303, alone in his house.
    I dream of the smell. 
    I dream of lifting up his pealed face…what was left of it for identification.
    I dream of all the sudden deaths I’ve attended. 
    I dream of the fatal accidents. Bodies broken and in pieces. 
    I dream of the swollen  bloated half eaten bodies from drownings. 
    I dream of the suicides. 
    I dream of the carnage. 
    I dream of the death. 
    I dream of the blood, and
    I dream in Red.

  6. Mr. Jewell,

    I would like to express my gratitude towards your well-written piece. I am a 14- year veteran of police work, having worked a variety of assignments ranging from SWAT, Gang Unit, Motors, Field Training, etc.

    I find my career being cut short by my recent diagnosis with PTSD, after having been involved in my 5th shooting. In 14 years, I have seen as many friends die, and, like you and our other brothers/sisters, cannot keep track of the dead bodies anymore. My first dead body still sticks fresh in my mind, as does yours.

    The one thing I would like to add, with humility and respect towards you and my fellow readers is this; no amount of training can cover a death notification. Those were always the worst. Having God knows how many sobbing mothers cans children clinging to me, angry fathers yelling and destroying their belongings. Trying to give comfort that cannot be given. Aside from the internal
    turmoil that comes with first seeing the deceased party, then adding the feeling that comes with knowing you’re going to absolutely change someone’s life with a simple knock on the door… The worst I ever had was when a young, pregnant woman was killed by an afternoon drunk-driver. (The drunk lived, naturally). I had to deliver the news to her ENTIRE family, including husband, parents, siblings,nieces and nephews, all of whom were awaiting her arrival so they could begin their family’s celebration of Mother’s Day. Because it was a particularly busy shift for us that day, I was the only unit available to clear the scene and deliver the news.

    I only mention this facet because it seems that most officers I have known never talk about this. If they are willing to share their experiences, it is usually in the manner you did. But, no one ever talks about the death notifications. I’ve yet to see them mentioned in any article. Strange, maybe they are just something we hold as sacred and unspoken? Just my two cents.

    To my brothers and sisters who are still holding the line; thank you. Remain steadfast, take care of yourselves and others. Watch your six.

  7. KC..

    Thanks for that!

  8. Jeremy;

    Please be careful not to get a paper cut.

    Thank you for commenting.

  9. Jeremy,

    Put your seatbelt on. Idiot.

  10. I had to print this out , so i could wipe my ass with! What do y’all think your job is going to be like after you a grown man graduated from police academy? Ride around around and screw with honest hard working American’s. Or arrests people who chose to smoke weed! I do understand that people are violent and the world is ugly and we need good men willing to lay it on the line, but then you pull someone over to give him a seatbelt violation. You want to be a hero? Police the murders sex offender the ones that are out to harm another human being and stop pulling people over to give them a turn signal violation just so u can generate cash.

  11. Mr. Jewell, Thank you for putting what we all know into a format that more people can understand. I am a Designated Reserve Deputy in Southern California. I have been doing the job for free for over 25 years on a part time basis. I did 15 years on patrol and the last 10 have been in the Specialized Investigations (Homicide) Unit. It is as you say: You can’t unsee the things we have seen. I can’t tell you how many people minimize my feelings because I am a volunteer and not a full time Deputy. After 25 years I have “seen” quite a bit. Your advice is spot on and I do many of the things you suggest already. Thank you once more for taking the time to share your experiences with all of us.

  12. Throughout my career I travelled to remote communities in the North, even as far as Coral Harbour, Nunavut. I have tremendous respect for the RCMP and the challenges they face in these remote communities. As a City Police Officer I always enjoyed the luxury of grabbing the mic and saying those three little words that always ensured help was but a moment away…”Officer needs assistance.”

    I know that just wasn’t the reality for our brother and sister officers with the RCMP.

    You deserve much credit and respect for the job you did.

    Thank you for your service and thank you for reading.

  13. This article was like looking in mirror, it reflected my 33 yr in the RCMP in 3 provinces and 24 offices, my first 15 yrs of service I often worked alone and faced threats constantly be they verbal or physical, firearms were so common we felt it was just part of the profession, early morning encounters with people in crisis, being shot at, finding bolts from crossbows sticking out of your trunk or a passenger door after returning to the office, bikers, mental health cases, domestics, barricaded persons, bullies…..it was what we did no questions asked…and we did it with a sense of pride.

    Fatal Accidents, sudden deaths, industrial accidents..”man’s inhumanity to man”, in it’s many forms ….one cannot be immune to the dangers to our mental health…no matter the stripe, or the locale ..cops with service can tell stories..we tell most of the funny ones ..BUT..there is the reality of the world we seen and our families experience ..that civilians NEVER see….Thanks for a great article!…..

  14. Thanks for sharing you thoughts Mitch….

    I know the Law Enforcement community very much appreciates your comments…..

  15. As a brother of a recently retired policeman I can say from experience that everytime I would hear on the news about a police officer being hurt or shot or killed I would be worried sick until I found out that it wasn’t him.dont take that the wrong way I would never want anything to happen to any police officer but my bro has done a lot of undercover work and most times was unarmed for obvious reasons. he,s one brave guy dealing with the assholes of society and with no sidearm only confirms that.he,s now happily enjoying a well deserved retirement with his pup Teah. to all active law enforcement: be safe and from the silent majority we support you all 100% and god bless you all!

  16. Phillip..

    It really doesn’t matter where you work as a Police Officer our experiences are universal.

    That’s why Police Officers around the world all speak the same language.

    Your last comment truly resonates with me and is true in many situations, whether it’s issues related to PTSD, use of force scenarios or the rare occasions when Police Officers come in conflict with the law. The public often lacks understanding, rushes to judgement and has a tendency to indict entire Police agencies for the actions of one.

    The press often contributes to that lack of understanding.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts, your comments are appreciated.

  17. Your comments are very much appreciated.

    Your response tells me you’ve figured out one of the great survival strategies in life. Convert negative experiences and events into learning opportunities with positive outcomes.

    The mind really is our most powerful weapon in our fight to overcome the emotional damage we suffer by virtue of our chosen professions.

    Thank you for commenting….

  18. This was incredible and so real to digest. I have been working in the humanities since 1995….Coroner, Child Protection Worker, Parole Officer, Probation Officer, Youth Worker and now I am a beurocrat Manager/Deputy. I can still relate and have images of the horrific investigations that I retain in my day-to-day life. The stress can be unbearable – I went through one divorce… Now I am on my second marriage with 4 children. 2 from my first, one blended from my husband and one we decided to procreate on our own. Such a challenging occupation – the thoughts and images never leave, but I truly believe it has made me a more intelligent being to help others/prevent discourse and just be mindful of the horrors of life. Thank you for sharing. So powerful!! B

  19. James a well expressed article detailing PTSD suffered by all ‘first responders’ . Your article was forwarded to me by an officer in a Canadien Police Force who formally served in the West Yorkshire Police Force, England with me. Police officers are part of the one civilian service that have to run toward danger when other citizens are running away as fast as they can! They experience the full force of whatever scene they are sent to. They have to take a deep breath and steel themselves when going into situations they are sent to. They cannot back away and say ‘leave it to you’ because there is no one else stood with them! Like you say they see scenes that no one should see, ever! Often you go home from a tour of duty and despite being tired sleep is not an easy option. Many former officers, retired for years, have difficulty with sleep and I wonder how many revisit scenes that caused them upset. The public forgets that Police officers are human also.

  20. Jay,

    I don’t know what rock you’re living under but wow!!
    I agree go sign up for a ride along!!

  21. I agree with James, why don’t you try to be even half as brave and amazing as the RCMP and all other hero’s there Jay, really, you big talker. This is a great written story, and so true. Have a nice night Jay.

  22. Thanks very much for the support Maggi….

    I know my colleagues in Law Enforcement really appreciate your comments….

  23. Thanks for the support Sheryl….appreciate it!

  24. Police Officers and first responders are my Heroes! They protect us and safeguard us 24/7 and when they put a foot wrong, boy do we hear about it! Sure there is always the odd bad apple in every group, but eventually they get weeded out. However these women and men put their lives on the line every day they go to work for us! They deserve our love and respect, and if we are law abiding citizens, we have nothing to worry about.
    When I think about how much money we are shelling out to Politicians, and compare it to what police men, prison guards, fire protection officers, nurses and nurses aides are being paid, to mention a few it makes me shake my head in wonder! I bet none of them are suffering from PTSD, but some of them should be sitting in jail. But that is a whole other subject! I digress!
    From the bottom of my heart thank you for your service …..there is not enough $ to compensate you for all you do!
    M. Hadfield – a grateful citizen

  25. Jay you are very mean and ignorant. James thank you for what you do. Blessings

  26. Firstly, thank you for your Police and Military service.

    You put a lot of time in and are deserving of a fantastic retirement.

    In 1989 we also lost a highly respected member of our Police Service. It was a shock to all of us and shook the foundations of our entire organization. I appreciate your comments about PTSD and know that Police managers across the Country are starting to become more alert to the need to recognize the harmful effects of emotional trauma on Police Officers and develop proactive approaches to support their people.

    We have a long way to go but at least we’re heading in the right direction.

    Thanks for commenting and be well.

  27. Thank you Steve…

    Spoken like someone who’s been there…

    Appreciate your comments….

  28. Jay obviously has no idea what police work is about!! Probably had nothing but bad experiences with police…This article is very well written & hits on many issues that affect not only police officers, but all our 1st responders. I myself am a retired police officers of 42.5 years service, along with military service. There are scenes and incidents that one never forgets, but hopefully once can deal with over time. PTSD is a very real thing that 1st responders have to deal with. My former police service lost a very well respected and hard working officer to suicide recently. This officer showed no signs of PTSD at all. Through his death, there is now much dialogue going on within the service, and it would appear that police management is finally “waking up” to the fact that PTSD needs to be dealt with among members, without repercussions. In my view his death has not been in vain. I agree with Steve’s comment about being “the thin blue line that protects most of society from the world they don’t know exists.” Hope this helps others understand. Thanks.

  29. Very well written. I don’t know if there is any amount of training that can prepare police officers for everything they are exposed to. Years later I can still picture specific calls where dealing with children ejected from vehicles, cutting down a troubled kid that couldn’t deal with life anymore when had just played ball with him a 2 days prior. Even going to standard noise complaints and showing up to do cpr on someone who’s drank too much and died from alcohol poisoning or vomitting.
    They are the thin blue line that protects most of society from the world they don’t know exists.

  30. You can’t un-see the things you have seen…..we just have to learn how to live with it!

    Thanks for commenting……

  31. Thanks Jeff….much appreciated!

  32. I was reading this, and as I was memories/flashes of suicides, close shooting calls, being the first car at the diamond club shooting and hoping nobody knew that I wasn’t sure what to do, a man with an axe in a dark basement many, many other incidents as I was reading that were worse than than what I have just mentioned.. And I haven’t had as much exposure as most have, I know it. Funny how these things do pop up in your head at times when something so trivial will trigger a memory as your walking down the street or watching a tv show.

  33. amen brother….well said…

  34. You should sign up for a ride along some time….

  35. Fuck that…… Most of these so called cops sign up for this, don’t be fooled!!

  36. A very heart felt thank you to you for sharing your warmth and kind thoughts….much appreciated.

  37. Officer Jewell, A very well written article that sheds light for us all. I have a nephew who is a police officer and I always end my talks with him with the words “Keep well and keep safe”. It is hard to not always think of the dangers you all face every day on your job. I think of you all as the face a person who needs rescuing wants to see, the sense of relief when you arrive to give the many forms of help you provide, the hero and the “knights in shining armor”. To my nephew, to you and to all law enforcement officers I say, “Keep well and keep safe in all you do”.
    Respectfully and gratefully yours,
    L.

  38. Judith;

    You touch on several issues here.

    The most important thing people must remember is that Police Officers are human beings. Human beings with all the frailties that come with the human condition. Police Officers are not immune to stress, fear, adrenaline and all the physiological effects that come with exposure to extraordinary events.

    Inexperience, lack of proper equipment and training are all issues that modern day Police Officers have to overcome.

    The point of my story was to bring awareness to PTSD by offering a sampling of the horrific imagery that Police Officers are subject to during the course of their careers in Law Enforcement.

    There can be no doubt, Police Agencies need to do more to provide emotional and mental health support for their Officers.

    Thanks for sharing your opinion.

  39. Judith Harrower

    A well written article and gives insight into what some officers experience. But having acknowledged this it is also known that an average day is routine and can get boring, but when significant incidents transpire are officers prepared? From another point of view why do many officers feel threatened immediately when confronting a highly stressed situation? The number of incidents involving serious harm and/or death as a direct result of an officer’s action is increasing, especially in B.C. Are the officers ill prepared to cope, lack training in alternative solutions, unable to control their own emotional fear, panic? Many times these officers after serious harm/death of a suspect feel guilty, unresolved answers and self doubting. Always found not guilty after an inquiry, officers do feel guilt in that they could have approached the situation differently and not used deadly force. Mental problems stem from unresolved emotional guilt, very few are able to push aside any feeling of responsibility and being accountable. In short many forces do not follow up on officers months later to address his/her mental stability after a serious incident.

  40. James G Jewell

    Gwen;

    I share your concern but am encouraged the issue is finally starting to receive the attention it deserves.

    Police management might be slower to get their heads in the game but at least the members are more aware of the issues related to PTSD now more than ever. Support from peers is a vital component to combat the effects of job related trauma.

    Thanks for commenting.

  41. This is such a moving document and a very touching one as I know that my son as a RCMP can relate to all the the incidents! I think of my son every day and I wonder what he was exposed to each day and what bearing it has had on his mind and hope he also can sleep at night! I love all the enforcement officers and can’t imagine what our Canada would be without their dedication to our country!!!

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