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  • Karen Hamilton-Viall

Soul Midwife

Carolyn Tovey is a soul midwife from Glastonbury. She assists people that are dying through the last stages of their life and sometimes beyond too. She chats to me here about how she started on this unusual and interesting path.

What is a soul midwife?

It’s working with people who’ve had a terminal diagnosis. It’s the journey with them from that point until their death. Some soul midwives stop at that point and that’s the end of their journey. Others will travel with the person who’s died into the other realm, leave them there, and then return back to their own lives. I do the second one. Not every time, it’s not automatic. You can’t choose to do it, but sometimes I’ve gone that bit further with them, and wave them off. That’s quite spectacular and ties in with the shaman journey for me. I experienced it first years ago, before I was a soul midwife, and before I understood what was really happening. It was like being in some dream state, but as I became a soul midwife, and I worked with people as they were dying, it became more frequent. I needed to know where I was going and what was going on, so that I was safe. It’s about helping the person who’s dying accept that they’re dying. That’s the biggest thing. Also, helping their relatives and friends to let them go. Because that’s another big challenge. Helping to be their advocate, so that towards the end, if they have requests, and desires, and wishes, and they’re not able to communicate, you become the advocate for them. It’s non health professional, so that’s really helpful because I’m not restricted by NHS rules, or anything like that. I’m an independent person speaking for the person who’s dying. Just being there, supporting them, and saying, “No, we’ve talked about this. Look, we’ve recorded wishes, we’ve written them down, when they could make those kinds of choices, and this is what they’d like, providing it’s safe to do so, and it won’t harm them more than necessary.” It’s about them dying the way they want to die, with the people they want around them, in a way that they have chosen. In a nutshell, the role of the soul midwife is the journeyman with that dying person. To enable them the best experience they can have. The one that’s least frightening, calm, and peaceful.

Where did you train to become a soul midwife?

I trained with Felicity Warner. Felicity’s based in Dorset, and she started the soul midwifery movement about twenty years ago. She was a columnist for the Daily Mail. She was about thirty at the time and her editor asked her to talk to three women who all had terminal cancer. Because she was a young mum with small children, and they were young mums with small children, but they were dying. The editor felt she could relate to them, so she interviewed these three women as they were dying, up to the point of their deaths. She’d had an experience with her own grandmother when she died, so the two kind of married together, and through it, and through her conversations with these three women, she began to understand the process that you go through in dying, and there is a process.

What are the stages of dying?

However you die, you shut down elementally, so your earth element, your ground movements, your physicalness, the big bits of your life, that goes first. When someone’s in their physical dying stage, as a soul midwife, we would work on things like how to still be independent, so it’s much more like nursing. We look at what can be brought in to help that stage, so the person can still stay in control. Once you go into the next stage, which is a much shorter period of the water. That’s all about emotion, and often in that stage, it’s all the things that haven't been sorted out in your life. It’s unsaid things to other people and relationship issues that you look at. It’s sadness about things not achieved, not said, not done. I spend a lot of time working around getting the dying person to a stage where they can let that go, and it’s no longer an issue for them. Because often, without working through that process, people will go to their deaths feeling that there're undone things, and that makes their death much harder. So it’s water, you’re weepy. If you can get that clear, sorted, and put aside, you can then move on to the next stage, which is fire. During the fire stage, people become angry and think, why is this happening to me? It’s not fair. That’s when they start fighting with their relatives. The relatives often get hurt at this point, because the dying person gets quite aggressive. So you work quite a lot with their relatives and friends in that period as well. I say to them, “Look, this just a process. This is the next stage. They’re just dealing with all the crap and rubbish that’s gone on with their lives, and getting it out of their system, because it needs to be addressed.” Then the relatives can understand that it’s not them. Sometimes it is personal, and it’s something that needs sorting out, and that’s equally helpful to the dying person, as it is to the relative. Once you’ve gone through that stage, you go into the air stage, and this period, the last bit before somebody dies, in a normal process of dying, can last up to a couple of weeks. It can be much shorter than that. It depends on how you’re dying. Even if you’re in a car accident, and you die quickly, you will still shut down in this same way, but obviously it’s in a much speedier time frame. If you’ve got somebody who’s aging, then this last period, you’ve lost your physical control, so you’re now mostly bed ridden. You don’t have to worry about all the external stuff you used to do, you can leave all that aside. You’ve sorted out all the emotional rubbish that’s gone on in your life: pain, loss and sadness’s and you can leave that aside. You’ve got rid of the anger. You’ve accepted that you’re going to die, and often when you’re working with somebody in the air stage, the final stage, the relatives will say, they’re happier, they’re much calmer, they’re much more at ease. They’re really nice in this time, and especially when someone’s been angry before, you get this lovely quiet calm period, and if you’ve worked with somebody as soul midwife you can step aside a bit, and allow the group, those last few days together, when it’s nice. Everything’s been dealt with. Then you come to the point of dying, and a person who can die peacefully will transition quickly.

When you die. In the old days, we talked about purgatory, and you’re going to stay there, and sort out your sins. I wondered about that for a while, and I think from my understanding, when you die you go through the first portal and you come to a space where, if you haven’t had the sorting out in your lifetime, that’s when you do it, and you stay there until it’s done and then you go through the next doorway, the next portal, and that’s when my connection with somebody would end, because I don’t go through that second door. I can go through that first door and into the first space, but not into the second space. That’s beyond where I can go, because you don’t come back from that one, and I would be lost. So for me, the work with Jane Kestrel as shaman, was essential, because of the journeying to and fro, for making it safe so that I could come back.

How do you journey to and fro? Is that something you learnt on the shamanic course?

I don’t know. It’s really strange, but when I first experienced this, I was with somebody who was dying. I’d been with them in the room for quite a few hours at that point, and it’s almost like a dream state. First, I thought I was daydreaming. The person who was dying was in the bed and unconscious at that point. In my head came this image of us travelling together to this place and then a group of people coming towards us. The person who was dying was in front of me and I watched them have a conversation. It wasn’t the point of death, so we both then came back to real state. We were back in the room. I dismissed it and thought, well my mind is playing games. The second time it occurred, it was with somebody who’d had a serious heart attack. The family felt that person was dying, and they called me in. I sat with the person who was dying. We journeyed to a hillside. There was a fence across the middle of it and I stayed at the bottom. The person went to the fence. There was a wooded area at the top. A figure came from the top to the fence and the two had a conversation. And then the person who I was with looked back at me and waved, returned to me and came back. And so we were then back in the hospital room. At that point, I thought, this is too coincidental. I’m not creating these images, so something’s going on here. And it was at that point that I thought I needed to understand what was happening. I got scared and thought, where am I going, what’s going on here? And so, I did the level one course for soul midwifery with Felicity, which is to the point of dying. And then I did the level two course with her, which is about journeying beyond, into the fourth and fifth realms and er… it was frightening, truthfully, because it seemed as if there was no understanding of what was going on. I then enrolled on a course with Jay and Kestrel from the Bridget Healing Centre, as I thought I needed to understand what I’m doing and that I can safely do this, without harming myself. Without getting lost in that middle place. That’s when I did the shaman course. That was a few years ago now.

I think when you’re with somebody as they’re dying, there’s an energy field that’s created and you can either get caught up in that energy field and go with it, or you can move away and stop. Then that person dies and goes on. I don’t know why, sometimes, I’ll go on and why sometimes I don’t. I can’t decide that I’m going to do that. It just happens at that moment and I can’t explain it. But it’s about the energy that’s created around a person who’s dying, that then takes you with them on that journey, and then you can go so far, and then you have to come back. Because the horror stories from the training that I’ve done are that if you don’t understand what you’re doing, and if you don’t control it, then you can get lost in that space, and that becomes your reality. Then you’re in all sorts of trouble, because you can’t come back and be you, so, to me, it’s very important that somebody would learn how to make themselves safe. I don’t know why it occurs. It just does.

How many soul midwives are there now?

When I trained with Felicity, I think there were about six hundred. I’m guessing that there’s over nine hundred now. She’s training all the time. And she’ll take twenty per session. It’s a really weird thing to get involved in, because lots of people, when you say you’re a soul midwife, think you’re birthing babies, and you say no, it’s the other end. Soul midwife means birthing the soul. At the moment that somebody’s about to die, there’s an energy field that spirals down from below them, from behind their back, and it goes into a corkscrew down. That bit that comes out of the body first is the personality. It disperses as energy back into the universe. The soul is the bit that travels on. It leaves the body from the front and spirals the opposite way. That’s the bit you journey with when it goes beyond this realm. People ask, what is the soul? Where does it go? I understand the soul to be part of a collective source. It’s the one thing that links us all together. We are all from that one source. The soul which leaves each of us as we die, then returns to wherever the place is that the soul originated from, to recharge, regenerate, and come back into another person. That then ties in with reincarnation, so a reincarnated soul will have soul memory of previous times. Although you’re talking about soul midwifery, that’s how it fits in. It’s about birthing of the soul back to the collective, or whatever you want to call it. Back to the universe, back to the source. To then take that lifetime’s experience back there and then be reborn as another person.

My job as a soul midwife is to help a person make sense of their life, make sense of what’s gone on before them in their living time and help them find peace, because a peaceful transition, that’s the goal. Being with somebody who’s afraid, and is fighting and screaming about dying, is the most harrowing thing, because you can’t fix it. If somebody dies in a frightened state, I can’t help them. And they’ve then got to go beyond death and try to deal with it, wherever you go next, so it’s about trying to help somebody be at peace. Put the demons aside. Deal with all the issues that have caused them grief, pain, sadness, or sorrow. Help them deal even with the joys. Once you commence working with someone and they trust you, there’s a wonderful relationship of discovery. You can help to find the good in whatever they’ve done, and you can create memories for those left behind. You can help them be at peace with traumas from before, and it’s a wonderful experience to watch somebody come from that terror of ‘you’re going to die’, to be accepting of it. To appreciate what they’ve had in their lifetime. To say goodbye in a beautiful way to those that they’re leaving behind. For those left behind to know that they’ve had that experience and then for that person to move on. That’s the goal.

How does somebody find you? Do they ask you to come?

That’s the hardest part. We do our training and think, yeah this is wonderful. This is the life I want, and then exactly that. How do you advertise yourself? You can’t make an income out of this, so if you’re looking to be paid for it, that just doesn’t happen. Some people get paid, but not enough to run your home, or anything like that. Felicity is becoming more known, and people will contact her through the soul midwifery portal, and there are contact details on the internet for that. If you’ve heard of it, so she will get a call sometimes saying this person would appreciate a soul midwife. She’s got a list of all of us, so if somebody was dying in Glastonbury, and they rung her, she would say, “I’ve got this lady in Glastonbury, would you like to meet her?” I’d get a phone call, and off I go, so that’s one way. I’m also linked through two local community hospitals: West Mendip in Glastonbury, and Shepton Mallet. I went to see the matron in charge and spoke with her one afternoon. I told her what soul midwifery was all about and asked if I could be on call to them. She listened and took it on. She felt it was valuable and so I have that link. Before Covid, I would get a phone call, and off I’d go to the hospital. I would meet the person there. I would also meet the family, if that’s what they wanted. I’d then be with that person, either in the hospital until they were dying, in a nursing home, or their own home. Sadly, Covid came along, and because it’s a voluntary position, no volunteers could go into the hospitals. I’m still not allowed back in. So, that side’s gone. Apart from that, it is word of mouth. If I’ve worked with somebody, and a family member is dying. I’ve been called in a few times to go to somebody through that link. I’m also a funeral celebrant and I’ve met families that way. It’s come up when I’ve been with the families, organising funerals. And I’ve done a couple of visits, through being a funeral celebrant. But you’re in that position where you can’t sell yourself. I’m not there to sell myself as a soul midwife when I’m there as a celebrant to take a funeral. So it really is, if it comes up, it comes up, and if it’s asked for, it happens. It’s not something that you’re doing every day. You can’t. I find it very difficult to work with more than one person at a time, because my energy goes entirely to that person. I can be a soul midwife, and funeral celebrant at the same time, because the two are separate, and I can compartmentalise both of those things. But it’s not something that you’re doing all the time. It is picked up and put down. It’s just another thing that I do. I don’t know any soul midwives, apart from Felicity, who would consider themselves to be doing this all the time. I don’t think you could, because it’s such an emotional and challenging thing to do. I think it would cause me harm. Albeit a beautiful thing to be with somebody when they die well, it takes it out of you. And I have to get that energy back. I do silly things with my grandchildren, fish with my husband, stuff like that. Just to recover. So it’s a really difficult thing to pin down. It’s one of those strange things in life where you are in the right place, at the right time, and somebody says, can you come? Sometimes I’ll have a phone call and I think, “How have you found me?” And we can’t quite tie that down. It might be because I had a conversation with you. You could then have a conversation with somebody else, who is local to me, and they say, “Oh, we need someone.” And then they come to me. Do you see what I mean? For me, it’s not fixed. I don’t advertise. Now and then, I get a phone call, and I go and do it. I was much more active as a soul midwife when I was linked to the hospitals. I was getting calls from the sisters saying, “We’ve got somebody who’s had a terminal diagnosis. We’ve told them about you. Would you come in?” I was going in on those occasions. But that’s not happening now.

Do you visit people at home as well?

Yes. So when they leave hospital, they either go to a nursing home, or back to their own homes. I don’t always see them through to their death. But I will see them in the hospital and we will talk about it. If the family wants to see me, I’ll do that. I’ve gone to nursing homes and I’ve gone to homes. But I don’t always go all the way through to somebody dying, because they don’t always want it. That’s the other big trust thing I suppose with soul midwifery, is you’ve got this person coming in, who is an outsider, and sometimes that helps and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes the family doesn’t like it, because when I go to somebody who’s dying, I accept that they’re dying and we’ll talk about dying, and we’ll use the word death, and we’ll use the word terminal diagnosis. We’ll talk in that way. There are families and friends who don’t want to hear that, and when the person who’s dying gets to the stage where they’re no longer able to make their choices, I’ve had family say to me, “Thank you, but we’ll manage now.”, and I’ve gone home. So it’s very much individual. No two are the same. I’ve been a soul midwife for about ten years now, and I’ve seen maybe twenty to twenty-five people in that time, and that’s all. That’s outside of the hospitals, because it really picked up when I was in the hospital, but outside of the hospitals, that’s it. Because those were the ones that found me. There are some soul midwives who are much more active than me, who do advertise. There are also soul midwives linked with care homes. It really depends on what the soul midwife is offering. What it is that they’re prepared to do. I’ve never felt that I wanted to do more than I do, because when I get called, I want to give my absolute attention, and I never want this to be a job. People find you. I think it’s one of those mysteries where you bump into somebody in the supermarket. It comes up in conversation and they say, “Can you come?”

I love that sort of thing. Some things are meant to happen aren’t they?

And for me, that’s how it’s worked. Not always in the supermarket, but that kind of link. How did you find me? Because we have a mutual friend in Helen. I don’t know how you know her, but we’re having a conversation now. If she knows somebody who’s dying, who would benefit from me seeing them, she’ll ring me up and say, “Can you come?” So, for the people I meet, I never hide what I do. Everybody who knows me knows I do these things, but I don’t say to them, “When your mum’s dying, give me a shout and I’ll pop along.”

Are there any lessons we can learn from people who are dying? Is there anything they learn near the end that we could benefit from during our lives?

The biggest thing is we’re all going to die. The biggest problem for people who are dying is that we don’t talk about it. We don’t address dying. It’s not going to happen. Ring the doctor and they’ll fix us. They’ll chuck us some pills. Often that’s absolutely right, and should happen, but there comes a point when a person is dying. Often, the hardest thing they’ll have to deal with is that their relatives are saying to them, “Come on, eat a bit more, you’re not fighting, you’re not trying. You got over this last time. Why aren’t you getting over it now?” When I sit with people, the biggest thing that goes through my mind, and I don’t say it to them, is allowing them to die. It’s not a failure on their part, it’s not a failure on your part, it’s the natural process. We need to talk about dying and we don’t. I’ve got friends, people I know, who are so angry, because a relative has died in hospital, and the surgeons didn’t save them. I find it very difficult to not say to them, it was their time. They’re trying to find somebody to blame, and say if this had been done, if that had been done, they would have lived longer. One of the hardest things that lots of people who are dying have to deal with is being taken into hospital, flushed out and sent home again, and then they’ve got to go through the entire process of becoming ill again. We are keeping people alive more than they should. This is all personal. I’m not speaking for the soul midwives, just from what I’ve seen. Many people are living longer, in a more deteriorated state, than I feel is fair. I went to visit a person in a nursing home. He was diabetic and had lost the use of his legs. He was a very practical, hands-on man. He rebuilt vehicles. He was an incredible fixer, but it was all about his hands, and the diabetes made him lose the use of his hands. As far as he was concerned, that was it. Life was ended. But through his diabetes, he then got kidney failure and urinary tract infections. He lived alone and each time he got a urinary infection, they would take him to hospital, sort him out, send him back home. Then he’d get another one, and they’d take him in, send him back home. The last year of his life was spent in a nursing home. His body had completely broken down, but his mind was absolutely sharp. The very last day that I went to visit him, the day he died, I got there about ten in the morning. He was quite stressed when I got there. He’d needed to be toileted, and he’d rung his bell. Nobody had come. For the first two hours that I was with him, he kept ringing his bell, asking to be toileted. Nobody came. He then couldn’t wait any longer. I got taken out of the room, because it took them about thirty minutes to clean him up. I went back into the room afterwards, and he was so ashamed. He said to me, “If they’d let me die a year ago, whilst I was still in my home, I wouldn’t have had to have this, and I wouldn’t have had to watch you coming back in after this has just happened.” That’s happening more, and more. I think that’s sad, and I wonder from the people that I’ve met, is keeping people alive the best thing to do, and why are we doing that? Why as a society do we think that this is the right way to be going? Why aren’t we talking about dying? Why aren’t we having dying in our vocabulary, as part of life? Why aren’t we allowing people to die when it’s their time? So with those thoughts in mind, that’s why I can’t do soul midwifery too much, because it gets those kinds of questions going round in my head. And I think, ok, I need to move aside because…

You can’t live in that all the time, can you…

No. So my hat goes off to those people that do this much more than me because the lovely thing I think about being a soul midwife is I’ve got to know the person, and the family, and then I take their funeral. So that’s nice, because I can talk personally about them. But it’s still a very sad end. You know, there are some wonderful moments in soul midwifery, some absolute joys, and there are sometimes… especially when you break through somebody’s pain… But emotionally, it’s very challenging and the person who is going alongside them, has to deal with that. When you add to that you’re journeying with someone after they’ve died, and you have to return to your own life, you have to be in a very strong, personal space to do that. You can’t be overwhelmed by what you’ve experienced. It’s about understanding not only the person who’s dying, but yourself as well. You have to be in control of yourself so that you’re not pulled under with all of that. It’s incredibly rewarding but also very challenging, so I wouldn’t want to do any more than I do.

Do you provide any other sort of healing? I read some people use oils. Do you use anything like that?

Yes, I make sacred oils. That’s just one aspect of what I do. I’m also a reiki master, so I offer reiki healing. As soul midwives, we also offer a thing called gentle touch. When you’re dying, your body dies in an order, and stimulation of the body is so important, but sometimes, we need to have a bit of medical knowledge. I’m not trained medically at all, but I understand what happens to the body as you’re dying. I will help the family touch somebody who’s dying. There are some cases where the skin gets very damaged. It becomes paper thin and very painful, so I have to understand about how you physically engage with somebody, and then teach that to those around. I make sacred oils, which are burning oils. They don’t go on the body. That again, I first encountered with Felicity, and it’s looking at the vibrational energy of the ingredients, to the oils, to the condition that you're looking to work with. When you’re in the water stage, you would use the rose and geranium and those kinds of oils, because they have a calm, relaxing element to them. If you’re interested, the book Sacred Oils by Felicity Warner will explain what they’re for and how to use them.

I have a bag that I carry with me. It’s my midwife's bag. In there, I’ve got singing bowls (Tibetan), so I use sound. I’ve got coloured cloth, so I use colours. We will use colours for healing, so looking at mood, looking at blockages, we use colours for that. The colours help people overcome obstacles where mood is controlling them. I was very much into Christianity for a long time in my life, and with that I learnt Christian healing, so it depends who I’m with. The traditional Christian healing is prayer healing. If that’s appropriate, then I’ll use that with them. If they’re not Christian, then I’ll use reiki healing. If they’re pagan, I’ll use shamanic healing, and I’ve trained in all of those. What else do I do? Art, crafts. We’ll sit and paint or paper mache together, and that’s wonderful. I’ve learnt that if you want somebody to talk to you, but you know they won’t, sit and do paper mache. You’re concentrating on the paper mache and then the conversation comes naturally. I use art, as a kind of therapy. It just depends who you’re with. I’ve also got chimes I use. I can take over a body and tonal change, depending on where the blockages are. That will then lead on to reiki healing. I’ll channel the energy around that specific area and try to ease that.

You’re called soul midwives, but are there men that do it as well as women?

Yes, not so many. They still call themselves soul midwives. I’ve met a couple when I’ve attended training courses. There are many more men who are funeral celebrants, and things like that, and I meet them in that field. I don’t know if many men are baby midwives? I guess there are. That always struck as quite odd, that there are women midwives, but the gynaecologists are men, you know. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if proportionately it’s the same. So there are as many baby midwife men as there are soul midwife men.

Are there are any other stories or things you’d like to mention?

I’m also part of OBOD (The Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids). I followed both the bard, ovate and druid courses, and finished those. I’ve been involved with healing through OBOD as well. My thinking years ago was that, whoever I encounter, I need to come to them respectfully where they are. One of the worst things I ever encountered; thankfully I didn’t do it, but that was more luck than judgement. I walked into a room with a friend, who approached a man and said, “Hello my name’s Bob, what’s yours?” and then asked him for his Christian name, and the man was a Muslim. So we walked out of the room because that finished us. He was offended, and rightly so. I was a Christian at that point. That pulled me up and made me think, hang on. What I do, what I believe, is my business, but I don’t impose or inflict that on anybody else. How can I walk into a living room with somebody who’s dying, with no understanding of who they are, and with that kind of arrogance that they have to be like me? So I started years ago to learn other traditions, other faiths, other ways of thinking and other ways of engaging with people. It’s been a long journey of trying to find common ground. Whatever my personal beliefs are, get shoved away whenever I go into a room. If someone asks me directly, what do you believe, then I’ll attempt to say what I believe, but that doesn’t occur, because I’m not there to sell me. I’m there to support them and it’s been an interesting journey. I’ve moved around into all sorts of circles. I was under life vows for twenty-three years, as a civil nun, which surprises many people when I’m in a pagan circle with my feathers, shaking my rattle, and banging the drum. It means I can walk into many camps, because I’ve not stayed in the one place. I’ve not only linked myself in the Christian world, or only linked myself in the OBOD world, only linked myself in the nonreligious world. I can go into each, because I’ve really studied each of those areas that I’ve trained in. When I learnt reiki, I went as far as I could go. When I joined OBOD, I went all the way through to druid, and completed that course. When I did Christianity, I was under holy vows, but it allows me then to not be arrogant about, “I’m right.” I think that’s the most important thing as a soul midwife, or as somebody going into somebody’s space who’s dying. I can’t go in there with any preset ideas of what’s right and wrong. I have to go in there with a completely open mind and just accept what’s going on. Have an idea of where we’re going and know the process. Fully understand the process of dying. How the body dies, and how the soul passes on, because you can’t do it without that, but not to go in there with an idea of how I’m going to control that, because you can’t. Everybody’s so different and everybody dies differently. Everybody’s relatives have ideas, so I have to go into a room, be an active part, but be invisible, because it’s not about me. I don’t think it’s actually taken away any of the fear of me dying. In fact, I think I know far too much, and that on a personal level could be a concern, I don’t know. I’m not at that point yet, but it is about being a support effectively without taking over, and whatever you get thrown at you, you just have to take it. Because you get anger, you get fear, you get tears, you get joy, you get every emotion from the person dying and those around them. You have to realise it’s not a personal attack. It’s because they are where they are right at this moment in time, and I have to help them navigate that, so itall ends as nicely as it can. It doesn’t always. Sometimes people die kicking and screaming, and that’s harrowing. That’s really hard because you know that they’re afraid and you know their relatives are upset, and you haven’t been able to help. Those are the hardest ones, because I feel I’ve failed. But that doesn’t happen very often.

You can find out more about soul midwives via Felicity Warner’s soul midwifery website.

The comments in this interview are the views of Carolyn Tovey only and don't neccessarily represent the views of the other people or organisations mentioned in this article.

Photos: Portrait, oils, herbs, Carolyn's own images.

Wooded hill Photo by eberhard grossgasteiger from Pexels

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