Professional Opinion v. Folk Wisdom

After writing so much about the poor representation of professional therapy in S7, I want to say something about how Doc Martin weighs in on the reliability of professional advice as opposed to that of all sorts of other people in Portwenn. Part of the problem with making such distinctions is that there could be many reasons why those decisions were made by the powers that be. I think that one very likely reason is that Martin Ellingham’s skills need to be differentiated from the other professionals. His medical knowledge is supposed to appear superior to any other doctor or nurse.  As a result we see him berate and humiliate other doctors and nurses. One reason we may see various residents of Portwenn make comments to him (and Louisa) is that small towns are like that. His neighbors can hear the baby cry or they quickly know about any altercation. Many times Louisa finds out about something Martin did by hearing from someone in town. He’s a prominent person in the town and eventually becomes a part of life in Portwenn. The townspeople begin to offer unsolicited advice as a way to reassure him even when they ought to be aware that he won’t be very appreciative of it. Indeed, that adds to the humor — his general irritation with anyone giving him advice is only further evidence that he is abrasive and unwelcoming. So, we recognize how the advice coming from either professionals or non-professionals works as an integral part of the character development and plot. On the other hand, the preponderance of examples of really clumsy, deficient, and blundering professionals seems to me to demonstrate a bias against professionals. Meanwhile, the number of times we can point to when non-professionals provide insightful and meaningful counseling also gives us pause and makes us wonder if the position of the show is that professionals are suspect and should rarely be respected, and regular folks, the uneducated but replete with life experience types, are the ones to listen to.

The show has included a fairly large number of medical professionals throughout the years, and when you look at them, most are quite incompetent. Among the doctors who can be listed as questionable are Adrian Pitts (S1), Dr. Milligan (S4), Diana Dibbs (S5), Colin Westmore (S6), and the doctor who treats Louisa after her car accident (S6). Adrian is the pits with an even worse bedside manner and attitude than Doc Martin and an insulting treatment of his female coworkers. Dr. Milligan (who may be either a psychiatrist or a psychologist) seems lost and has transgressed patient confidentiality by talking to Edith about Martin and admitting to accepting her suggestions. Diana Dibbs is clearly an anxious mess who abuses drugs, unethically shares her drugs with patients, writes prescriptions without proper examinations, and doesn’t realize she has Cushing’s disease. Colin Westmore is obviously out of his league and much too novice and hesitant for anyone to have confidence in his abilities as a surgeon. The doctor with no name who treats Louisa has neglected to check her adequately and is unaware that she has a DVT, which can be life threatening. (Dr. Timoney in S7 is definitely not a medical doctor; however, like Dr. Milligan, she is quite lacking in therapeutic skills and struggles to deal with marital problems. She eventually divulges confidential information and acts unstable.)

We should put Edith in this category as well because as much as she appears knowledgable about her field, she misses the diagnosis of diverticulitis and would have rushed into unnecessary surgery with little compunction. As we’ve discussed in previous posts, she also unethically asks Louisa about her sex life when gestation age is determined by a woman’s last menstrual period not when she last had sex. In fact, her sleazy demeanor while undermining Louisa to Martin makes her appear petty and disturbingly unscrupulous.

Then there are the other professionals, e.g. the Vicar, the Constable, the Chemist, and the Doctor’s Friend. Most of these are also depicted as compromised in some way. I appreciate the humor, of course, but still it’s hard to overlook the general tendency to denigrate the professionals. The Vicar is a drunkard, both Constables have major hangups: Mark is very insecure while Joe has been phobic and is buffoonish, the Chemist has her Martin obsession and medicates herself to the point of psychosis, and the Doctor’s Friend…well, he’s about as unctuous and repellent as possible. Louisa easily catches him distorting his negative appraisal of Martin with opinions from suspect residents of Portwenn.

In addition, we are presented with a group who we could consider professional, but who occupy a sort of grey area between actual professionals in their fields and pseudo-medical professionals. This list includes people like Sandra Mylow, the Herbalist, Anthony Oakwood, a research psychologist, Janet Sawle, a scientist, Molly O’Brien, the midwife, and Angela Sim, the veterinarian. They are in fields related to medicine and consider themselves qualified to make medical recommendations; however, we find their training and expertise lacking. Sandra earns Martin’s disdain when she willingly provides potions for people she’s never met, not to mention the fact that he considers her type of medical care akin to trickery. Anthony Oakwood is arrogant and his study of psychology is belittled when he excuses his son’s behavior with the jargon of a researcher rather than a parent. He’s the stereotype of a pedant and stunningly out of touch with reality. (We might have thought Martin’s tendency to be engrossed in medical journals and medical terminology could have ended up giving them something in common, but Martin has no respect for this egotistical Ph.D.) Janet Sawle is presented as a mad scientist concocting who knows what in her basement, and Molly O’Brien takes extreme positions about women’s health. Once again she’s a caricature of a midwife with few redeeming characteristics. It doesn’t take long for Louisa to dispense with her once she needs real medical care for a UTI. (There was a point during this scene when I thought “they” were making fun of the serious scenes between Martin and Julie Graham when Julie plays a midwife in William and Mary and gives birth to her baby in a birthing tub.) And, finally, who can take a homeopathic veterinarian seriously? Not only is it patently absurd that anyone can understand dogs by running their hands over their bodies and sensing a deep connection with them, but also she medicates herself with dog medication and becomes hallucinatory. I guess we could say she learned her approach to medicine from her father, who, by the way, is also remembered as mostly incompetent. His best treatment plan was giving Stewart placebos for his PTSD.

All of the above might be considered credentialed in some form and, therefore, people from whom we might expect unsolicited advice. Oddly enough, however, there isn’t much worthwhile advice emanating from the professionals listed above. For the most part the doctors with whom Martin interacts need his advice and have nothing much to say that might help him. The two medical doctors who stand out from this crowd of relative losers are Edith and Ruth. Edith focuses on Martin’s blood phobia and seems determined to rid him of it so that he can move back to London. Her motive Is mostly selfish because she wants to reignite a romance with him; nevertheless, she is helpful in confronting the phobia. What she suggests doesn’t work, but at least she gives it a whirl. She also tries to discourage Martin from losing heart about leaving Portwenn by telling him he’ll feel much better once he gets to London. (Of course this takes place after he has been pretty forthright about not wanting to be with her and she is unwilling to accept that.) Ruth is another matter. As both an aunt and a doctor, she tries to balance her medical advice with personal concern for him. She seems unconvinced at first that marriage is a good choice, although she does what she can to get the marriage off to a good start. She recommends seeking therapy to conquer his blood phobia in S6, does her best to get rid of Margaret, who she knows could only be there to cause trouble, and she continually tries to smooth things with Louisa. In S7 she finds a therapist she believes will be a good fit for him, convinces Louisa to participate in the therapy sessions, and checks in from time to time to see how he’s doing.  Of the medical professionals, she is the only one who offers useful advice even if we later decide that her suggestion of Dr. Timoney turns out to be a bust. Although she says a few contradictory things about whether people can change, I think her best advice comes when Martin is desperate for some guidance after Louisa leaves for Spain. Ruth first asks him if he wants to be with Louisa and then answers his affirmative response by telling him he must change and that he will find that harder to do than most. (Ruth gives others some good advice too. She tells Penhale he can attract more friends by being more complimentary; she tells Al to write his own story and stop delaying; and she tells Margaret to leave Martin alone.)

On the other hand, all of the aforementioned pseudo medical professionals have no qualms about giving advice to Martin. Sandra tells him he should consider doing more for his patients than prescribing medicine. Janet Sawle is suspicious of modern medicines and too many antibiotics, although her reservations are complicated by the uneasy relationship she has with her ailing sister. Molly O’Brien expresses popular concerns to Louisa about the overbearing demands of too many male doctors on their female patients and the hazards of using too many antibiotics. Naturally, her advice to ignore Martin’s recommendation to take antibiotics for Louisa’s UTI backfires and Louisa spikes a fever. (Both the Sawle case and Louisa’s condition point out that the fear of antibiotic resistance is sometimes carried to extremes and there are times when antibiotics are necessary.) Moreover, Molly’s portrayal of women being victimized by their male physicians is particularly offensive to Louisa. She considers herself well equipped to handle Martin and her life. Angela Sim’s advice to Martin mostly arrives through the vehicle of Buddy who she channels as if she is a dog psychic. She tells Martin he and Buddy have unresolved issues. In a scene reminiscent of the one with Sandra Mylow in S2, she also tells him he’s small minded because he can’t think outside the box of routine medical treatments. Later she tells him that “Buddy knows how lonely and unhappy you are, and he wants to help you. You must let him into your life. You need Buddy. You need to accept him.” At this point she starts to appear off-kilter, which could be construed as undercutting her advice. While she’s right that Martin is lonely and unhappy and needs help, hearing that from a dubious source will not have much of an impact on Martin.

But what happens throughout each series is many occasions when we have non-professionals who have no hesitation offering their opinions and advice to either Louisa or Martin. These include relatives, employees, patients, and so-called friends. Some stray townspeople jump into the advice business from time to time as well. Top on the list of non-professionals who have their own notions of what Martin should do is Louisa. Aunt Joan never holds back either. Bert can say some remarkably insightful things. Al, all the receptionists, Roger Fenn, John Slater, Muriel Steel, Danny, both Eleanor and Margaret, Mark Mylow, Peter Cronk, William Newcross, Wallace Flynt all give advice at some point. Even the fish monger, neighbor Mike Chubb, the dry cleaner, and caravan owner Bellamy take a turn. We can’t leave out Pippa, Erica Holbrook and Annie Winton either. In fact, the American Tourist has some words of advice for Martin before she leaves.

Louisa’s advice starts at the intake interview to determine whether they should hire Martin Ellingham as the next GP in Portwenn. Before the interview ends, she warns Martin that the Portwenn community prefers a doctor with a good bedside manner and she will be keeping an eye on him. Along the way she encourages him to have a laugh, to be friendlier to Mark Mylow, more talkative, less smarmy, more proactive, and to say something nice to her from time to time. She also wants him to be more involved with James, more interested in participating in her activities, and more sensitive to his family members, e.g. Ruth’s birthday or Margaret’s visit. Her best advice, in my opinion, is that sometimes people are different and that’s what makes us love them. I also like her advice to Martin when he’s planning to turn in Peter Cronk in S7. She becomes the Louisa we’ve known before and wants Martin to consider the impact Peter’s mistakes have already had on him before bringing in someone who follows the rules so strictly as Penhale often does.

Joan is filled with ideas of how Martin should behave. She’s happy to have him living nearby, but still seems to treat him as if he’s a young boy in her care. Since she’s the mother he never had, he allows her a certain latitude that others don’t have. Therefore, he accepts her criticism, judgements, and encouragement along with her casseroles. She wants him to pursue Louisa only to reach the conclusion that they are “chalk and cheese” and can never get along together. Later, when she finds out Louisa is pregnant and Martin is the father, she expects him to take an active role during the pregnancy despite any resistance from Louisa. She also tells him to remain a part of James’ life even if he leaves for London as planned. And during the broadcast of Louisa’s labor and delivery, it’s Joan who cheers him on to express his love for Louisa. She is disappointed in him when he takes too harsh a stand with patients and uses sarcasm on occasion to correct him when she thinks his behavior is out of line, for example when Helen Pratt dies or when Muriel Steel acts demented or when he insults her friend who caters the concert. Joan is by far the most outspoken of his relatives and quick to comfort him as well as to upbraid him. She certainly makes him think about what his next step should be. Her best advice in my book is telling him a child needs a father even if that father is far away. (Joan gives Al great advice too when he’s troubled by whether Bert is his biological father. She reminds Al that Bert has devoted his life to taking care of Al and whether he’s his biological father or not should not matter. We can speculate all we want about why they have Joan give such insightful comments about fathers — her father was awful, her brother is a rotten father, and she is a woman with a big heart — but her advice sets these two men straight.)

Amongst the best advice on the show for me is that given by Bert in S1E1 when he tells Martin “You need patients and we need a doc. Now we don’t all have to love one another, do we?” That comment makes Martin stop and think, and he changes his mind about leaving. Martin learns about the aged when he takes care of Muriel Steel. She dislikes his condescending manner, puts him in his place, and then comes around to realizing that being at a senior citizens facility is actually quite pleasant. Simultaneously, Joan suggests to Martin that it was her fears that had prompted Muriel’s hesitations about moving, and he seems to learn a lot about growing old. I really like Mark Mylow’s comments when his sister is visiting about being stuck dealing with people we don’t like because they are family. I also enjoy the advice Martin hears from the fish monger after Louisa has left him in S5: “No shame in cooking for one…Nobody cares about me. I might as well sit around all day in my “Y” fronts…You just hang on in there Doc. What’s for you won’t go by you.” Again, Martin gives that some thought.

The conversation Martin overhears between Pauline and Al about another couple that “he’s too shy; he’s always waiting for the girl to make the move. He’s always waiting for permission, and when you give him permission, he messes up” functions as advice and leads to Martin changing course with Louisa.

What are we to make of all these sources of advice throughout the show and their place in the storyline? Can we simply dismiss as humorous and irritating the many times when all sorts of people suggest some lesson to be learned to Martin? There are obvious pearls of wisdom mixed in with the random comments we hear. Roger Fenn tells Martin that becoming a parent introduces one to a whole new kind of love; and Erica Holbrook shows him that mothers can adapt and accept their children as they are. Mr. and Mrs. McLynn, Clive and Sally Tishell, and Jim and Annie Winton give us a few good thoughts on commitment and love. When we look back over the 7 series, it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that they are making the point that each of us have life experiences that teach us more than any insights we can learn from professionals. After surveying the characters from all 7 series, the evidence seems pretty clear that the doctors come out badly. With the exception of Martin and Ruth Ellingham, the doctors give deficient to awful advice, have generally terrible attitudes towards their patients, and are treated as inexperienced and often poorly trained.

Expert advice isn’t always reliable and over time the experts reassess and may change their positions. However, if the expert advice tends to be given by inferior figures, we can’t really consider that a fair representation. Homespun wisdom isn’t always wrong either, but I balk at a 26 year old woman who has been married 3 times already guiding Louisa in any way. It’s funny, but once again undercuts the show’s generally positive appraisal of lay people’s advice.

If nothing else, this exercise has given me a reason to recap some of my favorite dialogue. I’m sure I’ve missed some of the moments you’ve liked the most. I look forward to hearing from you on this topic.

Originally posted 2016-03-03 18:12:38.

17 thoughts on “Professional Opinion v. Folk Wisdom

  1. Santa Traugott

    My favorite example of this — whatever this phenomenon is — is the reconciliation of Clive and Sally Tishell. These two, one delusional and the other, not very bright, managed to get themselves back together in a dignified and grown-up way. (Well, leaving aside the lascivious pea-eating.) While their highly educated and more sophisticated counterparts couldn’t manage a coherent sentence about what their difficulties might be and how the could be overcome.

  2. Post author

    Good example. I guess this situation isn’t inspiring readers to say much so far. Surely you all have some examples that either agree or disagree!

  3. DM

    I have one for you: Mr. Porter, the would-be substitute vicar. He has no reservations about dispensing all sorts of pithy advice to Martin, be it about humility, making sacrifices, marriage, and happiness– any of which Martin actually does seem to deliberate upon at some level. Interestingly both Mr. Porter and Martin share an utter and complete disdain for their respective patients and parishioners who can blithely neglect the expert advice they themselves provide. In fact both are alike as once more esteemed professionals but are now somewhat fallen from grace and living in some form of self-prescribed exile with their own fairly unusual diversions, be they clocks or pigs. Similarly, Mr. Porter seems entirely competent in his field and had been, by Pauline’s account, well liked and respected– if you’re willing to overlook what has now come to pass for his angry pew-side manner not unlike Martin’s own horrible bed-side manner. Mr. Porter certainly is competent and professional enough to preside over Martin’s nuptials and indeed to actually show up for the wedding that is never, ever going to take place– or, in other words, it’s only going to happen “in a pig’s eye!” (or in the original and more germane version of this saying, “in a pig’s arse!”).

    I suspect that the mixed bag of flawed and inferior professionals and wise and enlightened yokels and their varied advice is intended to make Martin stand out from them all because only he possesses this singular devotion and self-sacrifice for medicine, whereas every other professional and wannabe is deficient because their profession is but a role for them. This is where Martin believes his pre-eminent skills are derived and what his fragile ego falsely believes and accepts as the whole of himself (and characteristically– but unfortunately– reinforced every time the villagers, and particularly Louisa, are dazzled by his superior medical prowess).

    I agree with you that Aunt Ruth does a reasonably good job attempting to balance her position as a professional and a family member to Martin. Although beyond Ruth entirely missing the mark with the particular recommendation of Dr. Timoney, she really misses the mark on what sort of therapist and what psychotherapeutic approach(es) and modalities she might have recommended considering her pre-eminent qualification to recommend to Martin amongst the panoply of therapies she ought to be familiar with (given the implication that Ruth is a psychiatric theorist and not a therapist– not to mention the special insight she should have about her nephew’s psychology at this point). Of course it’s difficult to say just how wrong Ruth really is about Dr. Timoney given that the only disclosure we have is her research in “psychotherapeutic theory”. Thus it’s easier to discern what Dr. Timoney is not (such as her not being a subscriber to Gestalt therapy, since she sets Martin up for failure with exercises he’s not ready for and thus perhaps inadvertently subjecting him to Gestalt’s paradoxical theory of change). That may seem like an esoteric distinction in Ruth’s poor recommendation, but I suspect it would be tantamount to Martin recommending a vascular surgeon when a cardiovascular surgeon is called for.

  4. Post author

    Mr. Porter is a good example and I like the comparison between him and ME. You’re right that he treats Martin as brusquely as Martin treats some others. He closes the door in his face, for example. I never thought about that comparison before.

    I don’t know what therapeutic technique would have been the best to use with Martin and Louisa, but the choices Dr. Timoney makes are abysmal. If Ruth was supposed to have known what kind of approach Dr. T would use, she never mentions it. All we hear is that Dr. T doesn’t suffer fools. She is demanding of Martin initially, but we never see the really tough side of her. Another missed opportunity and who knows what Ruth was expecting?

  5. mmarshall

    I have loved the words of wisdom dispensed by the “villagers.” The main characters don’t seem to regard it, but you can sense the wisdom seeps in unconsciously. The local’s comments also cause the characters themselves to comment and consider things they may not have otherwise. Such was the case in one of my favorite dialogues, also a favorite “ambiguous” back and forth. It takes place on L and DM’s first planned wedding day. DM is talking to a patient recently diagnosed with Klinefelter’s Syndrome:

    DM: Klinefelter’s syndrome… there’s no cure for can’t change it. The main thing is to learn how to live with it.

    Man: What if I can’t do that?

    DM: I’m afraid you don’t have any choice.

    Man: There’s always a choice, Doc.

    DM: Yes, depends how miserable you want the rest of your life to be.

    Man: A bit depressing.

    DM: Yes, I suppose it is.

    I had not considered that all the professionals are portrayed as incompetent, unprofessional, or otherwise ninnies, though some were obvious like the policemen, Edith and Dr. Timmony.

    Along the lines of the locals acting out more healthy patterns of behavior and relationships, I think Pauline and Al demonstrate a healthy way to date, get to know each other, consider whether they would be good with the other, and pursue one another in Season 4. Pauline is becoming disillusioned with AL and his lackluster boyfriend performance. Al tries to be what she wants (flowers, romance, surprises). It at first backfires, but he keeps trying. He plans a Grand Gesture (something I think Louisa has longed for from Martin; even a Small Gesture) in preparing a house for her has a surprise. In his typical clumsy way, the surprise causes more problems and Pauline jumps to conclusions and get jealous. She approaches him with her concerns, they talk quite a bit. Later Al tells her the truth, she’s touched, his true feelings of care and affection for her are communicated as well as demonstrated, and they are happy, arms around each other, “making up,” and enjoying each other insofar as they have to give to each other. Theirs isn’t a long-lasting romance or a perfect one, but I think they show patterns of a healthy way to go about a relationship — communicating, sacrificing for each other, trying to please and make each other happy while communicating their individual needs as well. More pearls of folk wisdom.

  6. Post author

    Thanks for your thoughts. Your example of Al and Pauline is interesting, especially because Pauline ends up leaving. Of course, that might not have been known when they seemed so compatible. But even then Pauline was looking for larger vistas and realized Al was never going to leave Portwenn, although he should.

    Now Al is gunshy and hesitates to get involved with Morwenna. I guess he’s not willing to strike out with one more receptionist (or whatever would be the metaphor for cricket).

  7. Amy Cohen

    I am not sure the writers intended to portray Dr Timoney as incompetent (until her head injury, that is). Maybe it’s just we think her therapy was bad. They did not portray her as buffoonish or crazy (until the head injury) unlike many of the professionals you’ve listed (the vicar, the chemist, the police, Sawle, etc.).

    There is certainly an ironic tone through so much of the show, and most people don’t behave as society thinks they should—a rude doctor, a drunk vicar, a crazy radio host, a whacko vet, a plumber who hates plumbing, parents who are cruel and abusive at worst or stupid and neglectful at a minimum.

    (In fact, sometimes I think that the only character who is true to type is Louisa—the caring but firm, dedicated teacher. Until S7 I’d say she was the conscience of the show, the center of gravity, the one through whom we are supposed to see everyone else, including Martin. She seems in many ways to be the “chorus.” Joan played that role also, of course, but Louisa certainly did even more so and especially after Joan “died.”)

    Isn’t that irony part of the show’s appear, its humor? It’s funny for a fishmonger to give better advice than a doctor. So maybe this is more about humor than about a statement about the value of professional versus amateur advice?

  8. Amy Cohen

    (I wish there was an edit function as I see I missed a few words! “Maybe it’s just THAT we think…” And “So maybe this is more about humor that IT IS A statement about…”)

  9. Post author

    I am always inclined to err on the side of humor, and I would definitely agree that a certain amount of the decision to have better advice come from lay people is intended to be humorous. The part that creates some difficulty for me is that Doc Martin and Ruth are always presented as serious about their professions and regularly express diagnoses and remedies that are informed and intelligent. Their knowledge is presented as capable and incredibly insightful. But when it comes to the therapy and a supposedly highly respected therapist, what we are shown is someone who struggles to know what to do and whose advice is superseded by someone as uneducated as Janice. Just made me wonder.

  10. Amy Cohen

    That brings me to back to my question: Did they intend to portray Dr Timoney as incompetent? I think they were trying to portray her as competent—they just didn’t do a good job of writing a script that carried that off, either because of the lack of time to include a full therapy session or because they were trying to oversimplify what would happen in couple’s therapy to fit within the time constraints and plots of the series.

    Of course, once she injured herself, she became as much a buffoon as Penhale and Mrs T. But up to that point, I didn’t sense they were mocking her abilities.

  11. Post author

    From what I can tell, they think they did a good job with the therapy. We just see many problems.

  12. Amy Cohen

    That’s what I figured. So in this case the professional was depicted as competent in the eyes of the writers, just not in the eyes of these viewers!

  13. Post author

    I should have added that it’s not quite as simple as what their intentions were, IMO. Although they contend that the therapy sessions worked well, I am stunned that they used a consultant who was basically a friend of Mark Crowdy, a producer of the show, who they believed would provide good advice. Furthermore, the sessions appeared to function more as a plot device than as a good example of marriage counseling. It’s possible they thought that was more important.

    In our opinion on this blog, therapy was touted in interviews and previews of the coming series as a meaningful way for this couple to approach their marital problems, and for Louisa to learn that she contributed to those problems even though she has been assuming that Martin was mostly to blame. By bypassing the major issues of their childhoods, which were clearly emphasized throughout the show, and depicting the therapy and therapist as inadequate and ultimately mentally compromised, they belittled therapy to the point of making it look quite ineffective. As a result, my opinion was/is their depiction shows little respect for therapy and therapists despite any claims to the contrary. In this post I attempted to argue that what they actually appear to believe is that folk wisdom is more valuable than professional acumen, above and beyond the humor that arises from that position.

  14. Amy Cohen

    I think we are saying the same thing—that is, that the writers short-shrifted how therapy might have been a useful tool both for the characters and thus for the show itself. My impression, however, was that they weren’t belittling therapy for humor or to make a point but rather distorting it to fit the time constraints and plot issues they wished to cover. I think the way they depicted the vet, for example, was to make a mockery of her professionalism; same with the incompetent surgeon, the drunk vicar, the incompetent policemen, etc., as you wrote in your post. Those were done for humor. I don’t think they intended to portray Dr Timoney as a buffoon for humor (except after her head injury–the hopping exercise was clearly meant to be funny)—but in the end, they did convey the impression that couples therapy doesn’t help.

  15. Post author

    Yup. And that hopping exercise fell as flat as a pancake. I think we do agree and would also agree that the humor they tried to recuperate in S7 was generally not very funny.

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