Category Archives: Relocating

One Year Later…

This time last year, Alec was one month out of surgery and had just returned for his first recheck exam with the neurologist. Based on his persistent lack of deep pain sensation, she told me (as any neurologist would have) that he “had a poor prognosis for return to normal function.” In other words, chances were slim that Alec would ever walk again.

At this point, we had moved into a vacant office on the first floor of ALDF headquarters in Sonoma County, Calif. Because Alec had come out of surgery for a herniated disc paralyzed, I could not take him home to our house in San Francisco, which had become inaccessible due to the stairs. We had nowhere to go. That’s how we ended up living in my office. I was sleeping on an air mattress next to Ali’s bed, eating microwave dinners, showering in the sink, and relying on my friends to take garbage bags full of laundry home every couple of days for me (Alec could not control his bladder or bowels and we went through towels, blankets, and sheets at mind boggling speeds). It seemed I did not leave his side for weeks, except to scurry to the bathroom.

I don’t think I registered the stress because there was no room for it. If you have ever been in a similarly stressful situation you will know what I mean. I proceeded hour by hour, minute by minute, doing the best I could with very little information, none of it especially good or encouraging. Alec had been hospitalized for two weeks, and I was terrified to bring him home and have the team of vet techs and doctors who were on hand 24/7 at the emergency facility shrink pathetically to just me, who had no idea what she was doing. Alec could not urinate by himself and I had to manually express his bladder several times a day (if done incorrectly, he would quickly develop an infection). I was shown how to do this at the vet hospital a few times and it was clearly difficult even for the professionals. This daunting task was made more difficult by his size. Although bladder expression is much easier when a dog is standing, Alec could not stand up and I was not strong enough to hold him up (at the vet hospital it took three vet techs to accomplish this task – once he was discharged there was only me) so I had to do it with him lying on his side, which is much harder. We went through box after box of piddle pads and diapers, because in between expressing his bladder, he would constantly dribble/leak and soil his bed. His bowels worked without my help but he had no control over them, so he would begin to poop and then try to get away from it but could only drag himself through it, smooshing it into his fur and his bed. I cleaned him and his bed up many times each day.

These first several weeks were difficult for both of us. But there were bright spots: my good fortune to work at an animal protection organization that allowed Ali and me to move into my office temporarily, a group of generous friends who supplied me with meals, laundry service, moral support, and donations of needed supplies, and an amazing local veterinarian who made “house calls” to my office to check on us every few days to make sure I was emptying Alec’s bladder completely and that he had not developed an infection. Oh, and the brightest spot of all – that Ali did not die, which I certainly thought he was going to during the harrowing days between his first and second surgeries (first surgery: 2/9/08; second surgery: 2/13/08). At this point, he was going downhill and nobody could figure out why. As his condition deteriorated, the neurologist speculated the spinal bruising might be moving up his spine (a fatal condition called “ascending myelomalacia”), which would have eventually paralyzed his vital organs, including his lungs. This was the first time she used the word “terminal” and I will never forget that feeling of falling.

As it turned out, the exact same disc that had been operated on mere days before had shattered again, for no apparent reason. Neither this neurologist nor anyone I have talked to since has heard of this happening before. It is a mystery, an apparently rare occurrence. This is why he had the second surgery. The neurologist told me she could operate again but warned me that it might not make any difference at all. and he could come out no better than before the surgery. It was a gamble. But we were out of options at that point so I said, yes, do it… do anything you can.

So Alec did not die and that was the best gift of all. But he was paralyzed. My playful, goofy, beloved shepherd who only a week before was running in the park playing his favorite game, “stick,” could no longer move his hind legs. However, I was told he could use a mobility cart (doggie wheelchair) to get around, even if he never walked again, and I was eager to do whatever it took to help Alec get his life back. Of course, I still hoped he would regain the ability to walk, but that hope became increasingly dim as the days passed and he still did not recover deep pain sensation, which brings us back to that first re-check in March 2008: my hope dissipated further when he was given that poor prognosis.

There is a lot more I could tell, both about those scary/crazy/stressful early days, and about how Alec began to slowly but steadily improve. I am going to skip over everything that has happened in the last year because much of our rehabilitation journey has been chronicled in this blog. I wanted to write this one-year anniversary post to emphasize how far Alec has come in the last 12 months. Because all you really need to know is that in early Feb. 2008 a disc suddenly shattered in Alec’s spine and he became paraplegic. He could not walk, could not control his bladder or bowels, and was expected to be paralyzed for the rest of his life. But he is walking now. Yes, walking…first with a lurch, now with a limp. Last month, he walked around the block without his wheels for the first time and we haven’t looked back. I am gradually increasing his time outside of his cart and he is doing great.

Let me just say it one more time, because it feels so damn good to write this: ALEC IS WALKING. Sometimes it’s hard for me to believe, just like it is hard for me to remember how I groped my way through those first few days and weeks without the panic swallowing me. Alec has defied all expectations. He is amazing. And hey, I am not going to sing my own praises here, but I did not give up on him either, which was also important. I gave him every chance and he took it, from one milestone to the next. Some people have wondered what his attitude was like when he came out of surgery paralyzed. I want to write more about this issue in another post, but I will tell you, Alec means the world to me, and I watched him closely for signs of depression. While there were of course changes and adjustments, Alec always had a good attitude. Honestly, his resilience and irrepressible spirit astonished me. His great attitude continues to this day, and has helped with his physical therapy and everything else we have been through on this road to recovery. Which by the way is not over…but I am happy to report that perhaps the biggest milestone of all has been reached. One year later, my boy is walking again.

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Filed under Bladder Expression/Urination, Doggie Wheelchair, Milestones/Progress, Paralysis, Physical Therapy/Rehabilitation, Relocating, Spinal Surgery

Portland, so far…

This is our first update from our new city! We have been in Portland now almost two months and much of this initial period has been dedicated (both in terms of time and mental/emotional energy) to getting us settled into our new home and establishing new routines; besides the fact that we moved to a place where I barely know anyone (change enough!) there have been many additional changes for Ali. (True to form this blog post is going to be about Ali, but just in case you are wondering: I love Portland so far and am very happy here. I think it was a good move for both Ali and me.)

There was definitely an adjustment period for Ali after the move, but he is now settled in and doing quite well in his new surroundings. We are plugging along with the physical therapy, and I thank my lucky stars every single day for Ali’s continued progress, good health, and his amazing joie de vivre…and of course, his companionship. If you are new to this blog, you may want to check out the first post. Alec has come so far since those early days and weeks after surgery that it is easy to forget how amazing, how vast, his improvements have been. In eight months he has gone from being completely paraplegic and unable to urinate on his own to, well – how he is today!

He is getting around quite well by himself in the apartment and at the office, “walking” with an abnormal gait where he often drags (or “knuckles”) his back right foot, but walking nonetheless. This “walk” is not quite ready for prime time and he still uses his doggie wheelchair and the walk-about harness when we go outside. Because of the knuckling, I have to be very careful about him injuring his back right foot, which he has done several times, from scrapes to ripped toe nails (our use of “soft claws” nail caps have helped solve the latter problem). But I am encouraging him to practice walking, and my main challenge is to maintain balance between letting him practice bopping around (especially in the office, where he has a lot more room to explore than in our little apartment) and making sure he does not overdo it. Compared to the challenge of expressing his bladder all by myself, which I did for the first several unforgettable weeks after surgery, this doesn’t even qualify as a challenge! At the recommendation of his new rehab place, we are also using a sciatica wrap on his right leg for a few hours every day, which helps him to take steps and not knuckle (this is basically a wrap that goes under his foot and up around his ankle and helps keep his toes up when he walks).

As I mentioned, there have been plenty of changes for Ali above and beyond what a “normal” dog would face upon moving to a new place. Ali has moved many times thanks to me, and he typically handles it very well. But compared to previous moves, this one involved more adjustments. First, there was the matter of finding a new rehab facility where Ali could continue his underwater treadmill therapy. We started going to a veterinary rehab facility here called Back on Track, about which I have mixed feelings, but I am trying to keep an open mind. After a few initial setbacks on the treadmill, which could have been due to the fact that there was about 3-4 weeks between sessions during the move, Ali seems to be back to where he was before we left California. We are continuing to do the treadmill sessions once a week. We were lucky enough to be getting a break at our last rehab place, which is not the case here, and the weekly sessions cost more than twice as much ($55 vs. $25). There is one doctor and the rest are vet techs (or possibly training to be vet techs; there are so many I’m not sure) and they don’t even have the same person in the water with Ali each week, so it is much different from California where we primarily worked with Juli. But my main concern– and everyone I talk to thinks this is weird – is that they have loose dogs running around the facility, usually several. They have to whisk them away into side rooms when Ali comes down the hall (because he’s a bad shepherd!), but whoever heard of a rehab place with loose dogs running hither and thither? They also have two treadmills in the room, which means there is usually another dog on the other treadmill at the same time Ali is in there, so of course that is distracting. However, I think the treadmill is important for him and we are making it work so far. He is doing quite well with the chaotic situation, all things considered. There is only one other rehab place in town and I may give them a try at some point too.

My second goal was to find a safe accessible place where I could continue to take Ali swimming on a regular basis, an activity that in my opinion has been invaluable for him both physically and psychologically. I spent a lot of time during our first few weekends driving around to scout out possible swimming locations, after quizzing many random Portlanders and searching online to get ideas. After a few initial trips to less than ideal spots, I believe I have found our regular spot! George Rogers Park, recommended by my colleague Stephan, is in the town of Lake Oswego, a 20-min. drive south of Portland. This park is right on the Willamette River and is completely accessible. There is a steep staircase leading from the parking lot down to the river, which almost made me turn away before I noticed the long handicapped ramp, with about seven switchbacks, snaking back and forth, bisecting the steps leading to the beach. Unbelievable! I was so happy when I saw that on my reconnaissance mission, because it has been hard to find places on the river that Ali can actually get to using his wheelchair. The beach itself is flat and sandy and the water is calm. There are usually other people and some dogs there but not too many and we have not had any problems yet (knock on wood!). The park also has trails that I think a lot of people take their dogs running and hiking on. Since it is the cold rainy season, fewer people are down by the water, which is good for us. This morning was our fifth trip there. As I have written here before, I never took Ali swimming without a “buddy” in California, just because there are too many things that can go wrong. However, because here I lack the social network I had in Calif., I have no choice; it’s either brave it alone or he doesn’t swim. The latter simply not being an option, I now take him alone and am nervous every second doing it, but just hope for the best! I also have some pepper spray in case of errant dogs or people. I am never happier than after a successful swimming outing. Ali just has so much fun, and he can really let loose in the water and chase the ball at top speeds, which he obviously can no longer do on land. It is very satisfying for me to see him having fun in this way, getting to engage in one of his former favorite pastimes: fetch!

The third big adjustment was our new office and the surrounding downtown environment, which is different in many ways from ALDF headquarters in California where we spent the last three years. I will write more about that soon, but today is Thanksgiving and it’s time to start preparing the vegan feast: Tofurkey roast, cranberry sauce, stuffins, sauteed rainbow chard, garlic smashed potaters, lots and lots of gravy, and something special for Ali too! But first I want to say THANK YOU to everyone who has left nice comments for Ali and me on this blog. I am incredibly grateful for your support and encouragement, and I have appreciated your kind words. I am thankful for so much, but most of all I am thankful to be spending Thanksgiving with my best friend, and thankful for every single second we have spent together since that happiest day when he came to live with me five years ago. Happy Thanksgiving!

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Filed under Milestones/Progress, Physical Therapy/Rehabilitation, Relocating, River Swimming, Underwater Treadmill

Good-bye California…Hello Oregon!

Wickersham Park in Petaluma, where we spent so much time over the last 6 months…farewell!

The Relo-Cube… which is hopefully right now en route to Portland with all my belongings!

Ali and I are leaving California and moving to Portland… tomorrow! I have been too busy preparing for this big move to write anything about it, and I will keep it brief. Suffice it to say that after living in Petaluma for six months I am very happy we are moving on. There are many reasons why Sonoma County has not been working. And although I loved San Francisco (except for the commute!), moving back there is just not an option anymore because 1.) Every dang place has stairs and 2.) Rents are way too high for me to live alone, and with Ali’s condition I am just not prepared to risk another Craigslist experiment and move in with total strangers. Luckily for me, ALDF has a secondary location in downtown Portland and I have been granted permission to transfer to this smaller office. Although I am daunted by the thought of starting all over again with Ali in a new city – not to mention one where it never stops raining! – there are many reasons why I feel this move will be a good one for us. I recently found the perfect apartment, too, which seemed like an auspicious sign. It’s an affordable one bedroom, totally on the ground floor (no more steep ramp for Ali to negotiate), carpeted (so Ali won’t slip), and in a nice neighborhood within walking distance to lots of great stuff, including a park. We are leaving tomorrow morning; the drive is about 9 hours. Big moves are always difficult, especially when doing it alone, but luckily I have amazing friends to help.

Most importantly, the improvements Ali has made over this last week are nothing short of amazing. His right leg is taking full steps in the cart now. I was able to get an appointment for Ali to be seen one last time by Jackie, the rehab specialist at UC-Davis, before we moved. I was hoping she could suggest some new rehab techniques for me to try now that he is starting to take steps. She basically said to keep doing what we are doing and to continue underwater treadmill sessions if possible in Portland. More soon…I have to finish packing the van. Wish us luck on our new adventure!

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Filed under Milestones/Progress, Physical Therapy/Rehabilitation, Relocating

Ah, moving…does it ever go smoothly?



I am happy to report that the move went very well! Except for the unfortunate accident I had involving a beer bottle, my wrist, and a lot of blood. No, I wasn’t drunk! I wasn’t even drinking. I swear. I was unloading my van, trying to get Ali’s big orthopedic bed out, when an errant 6-pack started tumbling toward the door (in that weird combination of slow and fast motion). A couple bottles hurtled past me to the ground and smashed in the gutter and in my panicked attempt to keep more from falling somehow I caused another one to crack open and the jagged pieces hit my wrist on the way down. What a mess…glass and beer everywhere (hi, new neighbors)! Once the blood started gushing and I saw where the three main cuts were (one was right in the suicide place, scarily near my vein, and the other was so deep it would more accurately be described as a “gash”), I started to get faint and called my roommate Maggie at work, just so someone would know where I was in case I passed out and bled to death, and she came immediately with our dusty ALDF first aid kit and bandaged me right up. She is awesome!! Why is this relevant to my Ali blog? Well, it was my right wrist and it was really painful (not to mention disgusting) for a couple days and I need both my hands and arms to deal with Ali without hurting us, so it was tricky. But a little over a week later I am completely healed and trying to be much more careful around glass. Although I think I may be accident prone.

To get to the raison d’être of this blog, Ali is doing really well and has settled nicely at our new place in Petaluma. He is using the ramp successfully and the park across the street is very convenient for us. I take him there 3 times a day (2 on work days) to exercise, go potty, and do ten minutes of standing exercises in his cart. He and Rita, Maggie’s dog, are getting along great and I couldn’t ask for a better canine roommate for him right now. She is pretty low key which is good, because he wanted to play immediately when he met her, and when Ali plays he throws his whole body into and even likes to spin around (his infamous “play spins”), so I had to watch him pretty carefully to make sure he did not overexert himself. It has been interesting adjusting to life outside of one room, because of course he sometimes wants to travel from room to room, or greet Maggie and Rita when they come home, and meet new people when they come over. I have to watch him so he does not drag himself, which he definitely was trying to do a lot at first (and still does sometimes) and when he wants to get up I run over and grab him by his Walkabout rear harness (aka his “shepherd handles”), which I leave on him all day until we go to bed, and assist him by lifting his rear legs so he can walk where he wants using his front. The rest of the time he is on one of his beds. Getting to and from work has been a challenge (obviously compared to the convenience of living in my office, ho, ho, ho). Everything takes so much longer, getting him in and out of the car is kind of tricky (and making sure he doesn’t get himself into some weird position while I am driving), but we are getting into the new routine. Last week we were able to join in our first staff dog walk since his surgery over two months ago, which was great. The other dogs were not quite sure what to make of his wheelchair at first, but it didn’t stop Alec from his favorite activity while walking with a group dogs – trying to pull to the head of the pack so he can be the first one in what must appear to onlookers like a dog parade.

I still need to keep his walks short and it’s better for his joints if he walks on grass (hence the park across the street being so convenient), but Juli, his rehab therapist, says eventually he can take long walks in the cart. For now though, she emphasizes that physical therapy is the most important thing I can do with him in the cart, more important than going on walks, and I need to keep doing his exercises throughout the day. She showed me a new exercise where I assist him to sit and then stand several times throughout the day for one minute. She came by last weekend to help with his cart problems and showed me a way to get him to urinate in the cart and it is working so I am very happy about that! Moreover, she believes she see some slight movement at the top of his back legs, where they meet the rest of his body (this is called “proximal motor”). She also believes he has deep pain perception (I pinched his tail once in front of her and she saw him react – the reaction I could not get for the neurologist during our initial re-check exam back in March). Since Juli believes Ali is showing some improvement, she suggested I make an appointment at Animal Care Center with the Dr. Tieber for another re-check. She said because she is not a doctor she can only “assess” Ali’s condition but not “diagnose” and thinks I should get a neurologist’s opinion on what she believes she is observing (i.e. some return of motor function).

After we see the neurologist, Dr. Tieber, we are going to have a rehab appointment with Juli and put Ali in the hydro-therapy tank for the first time. I really hope Dr. Tieber confirms what Juli is seeing. I feel like he is improving too – it seems like I can see his legs moving slightly sometimes in the cart – but I am afraid to get my hopes too far up. Our appointment is on Friday morning. Wish us luck!!!

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Filed under At-Home PT Exercises, Bladder Expression/Urination, Doggie Wheelchair, Milestones/Progress, Physical Therapy/Rehabilitation, Ramp, Relocating

Moving out of the ALDF office tomorrow!

It has been nine weeks since Ali’s second surgery, which means we have been crashing at ALDF headquarters for two months (if you just tuned in, we are living in my office because my former apartment in San Francisco has stairs and we needed to be on the ground floor for Ali’s recovery). Strangely, living in my office has actually become comfortable. It just goes to show how adaptable we are, I guess! Ali has adjusted amazingly well to not having use of his back legs and I have adjusted to living at work in a hybrid office/dorm room the size of a shoebox. The thing is, at this point, living here is a known quantity, whereas my new place has all manner of exigencies and contingencies. There is a whole new routine we will have to create and then there is that ramp…I will have to saddle him up in his cart (a routine in itself to which we are both still adjusting) and use the ramp every single time we need to leave the house. No more sling-walking him outside to go to the bathroom (my back finally stopped hurting, so that actually became easier). I will have to start loading him in and out of the van (with another ramp) to go to work, and in and out of his cart every time we get in and out of the van. Then there is Seniorita (Rita, for short), my new roommate’s dog, whom Alec has not even met yet. This will be interesting!

I am trying not to completely freak out, but moving is always and inherently stressful. Throw in a paraplegic German shepherd with a brand new wheelchair and a new canine roommate and I imagine things can get real interesting real fast. There is also a park right across the street that appears to be a de facto off-leash dog park. It will be nice to have a big grassy area in such close proximity for Ali, but I am not sure how he will be about meeting other dogs in his wheels. He is usually fine at dog parks (as long as he is off leash), but I also need to be concerned with him not moving too much, so I’m not quite sure how this is going to be. My new neighbors also have two dogs who are outside a lot, so…lots of unknown factors, which are making me oddly reluctant to leave my cozy known quantity of an office/dorm room. We have a nice routine here that is working. But it is time to go. I can see how people become shut-ins, though, sort of. I am taking the day off tomorrow to make the move just so I can take my time with Ali and all this newness. Tonight though, I am going to pour myself a glass of wine and stop worrying.

Because I have been kvetching about Eddie’s Wheels all day and I am tired of it, just a quick update about Ali’s inability to urinate in the cart. Juli, the fabulous and amazing canine rehabilitation specialist, came by today and rigged a soft saddle on the part of the cart that was pinching his urethra. It seems to be working part of the time. I will know more soon. But it’s nice to know she is willing to help us. I don’t know what we’d do without her! Oh, and she let me know I am not the only person who has had problems with Leslie from Eddie’s Wheels. Apparently, another physical therapist she knows refuses to work with her because of her attitude. But she also told me that Eddie’s Wheels carts are the best on the market and far superior to other brands, in her opinion. So hopefully we can make this work for Ali. But if anyone stumbles on this who is considering a cart for your dog, beware the urethra-pinching saddle if you have a male dog! They won’t tell you about it beforehand but it can be a serious problem. I am afraid Ali may have developed another urinary tract infection from not being able to properly urinate those first couple days in the cart. So this is a serious flaw for which they should take responsibility and be compelled, from a purely ethical standpoint (unbridled capitalism not withstanding), to start disclosing. This not a chair or an ipod they are manufacturing; it is a wheelchair – a ticket to mobility, freedom, and life – for a living being whom somebody loves very, very, very, very, very much.

Photo: Ali in the ALDF kitchen today, before his mid-day stroll.

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Filed under Doggie Wheelchair, Problems with Eddie''s Wheels, Ramp, Relocating, Social Interaction

Cart is here…and it fits!

Juli, the rehab specialist, brought Ali’s cart by yesterday and I am SO happy to report that it fits perfectly!! I have been on pins and needles all week worrying about that and I am so relieved!!! (If it didn’t fit, we would have had to send it back and wait over three weeks for another cart.) After getting him used to the cart inside, we walked him outside around the building and he loved it – he looked so happy. He was definitely ready to go, go, go but he can only be in it for short, ten minute walks at first until he builds up his strength and endurance. He has been “down” for about two months now, which is a long time. Maggie videotaped everything and we will put footage of his first steps with his new wheels on the website as soon as we figure out how.

The best part, however, is the fact that Juli said she saw his legs moving a little bit while he was walking in the cart (yes, his back legs!). Her exact words: “He’s got motor!” Obviously, this is really exciting!! Next step is she is going to check on him in a couple weeks, after we are settled into our new place, and if everything is going well, we will schedule him for a hydro-therapy session (which was not on the table until his legs started moving), where we get into a water tank and see if he will move his legs, I guess (I’m not entirely sure but I have to be strong for it apparently!). So now we are planning to move at the end of the week, after he has a few days to get used to his wheels. At my new place there will be lots more to get used to – including loading in and out of my van and getting up and down the porch ramp. I am nervous about all that but I hope it will become routine, just like living in my office eventually did! Everything was so hard at the beginning – there were times when I really thought I couldn’t do it – but we made it through that and things got easier. Obviously, things improved tremendously when he started going to the bathroom outside. I really can’t overempashsize how much that changed things. I feel so fortunate.

Anyway, I must say it was really great to see him walking again – even if it was just around the building. It was a very good day!

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Filed under Doggie Wheelchair, Milestones/Progress, Physical Therapy/Rehabilitation, Ramp, Relocating, Underwater Treadmill

Ramp is built!

Yesterday my dear friend Steve (Ali’s too!) spent the whole day building a ramp for Ali so he can get up the 6 steps to the porch at my new place in Petaluma. I am tremendously grateful for him for building this for us – it was a big job and took hours! But now it’s all set up and all that remains (besides painting it) to be seen is whether Ali will be able to get up and down it okay in his new wheels (which won’t arrive for another [long!] two weeks). It should be fine, but of course I am nervous it will be too steep. Anyway, it is a tremendous relief to have the ramp built. Thank you, Steve!!! The materials cost about $200, but at least I didn’t have to pay someone to build it (and thank you again, Steve, for also donating the paint!).
I spoke to my good friend and SF roommate, Courtney, tonight. They have started reluctantly interviewing people for my room and are sad about it – as am I! I looked up the listing for my room on Craigslist and it bummed me out; I remember us all writing the description together when we were looking for another roommate six months ago. This time it’s me being replaced – although nobody wants it! It will be hard when I go back to pack up my things once and for all. I have not been back there in over a month – ever since I left that morning to pick up Alec from the vet hospital. Right now it feels like I am just temporarily “away.” I don’t want to go back and say good-bye forever! Still, I can’t overemphasize how happy I am that Alec is here with me and doing so well all things considered. I am grateful I have this chance to take care of him and that is my one and only focus. While all this is true, saying good-bye to my old life will be sad too.

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Filed under $$$, Ramp, Relocating