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Living a Near Lifetime with an Artificial Ticker


Editor’s note: This story was originally written for the Russell Banner but Judy Preston was born in Benito to Helen and the late Riley Prieston. She went to school at Troutcreek School and proceeded to complete Grade 9 and 10 in Bowsman and Grade 11 and 12 in Swan River.
When Judy Preston was born with a low heart rate back in 1950, the doctors assumed it was because she had the umbilical cord wrapped several times around her neck. It wasn’t until she was three years old that a public health doctor speculated that she had a complete heart block.
“I went to the Children’s Hospital (Winnipeg) and they thought a Complete Heart Blockage was wrong with me but they still didn’t really know,” explained Preston.
Around Preston’s sixth birthday, on Aug. 24, she was scheduled for a Cardiac Catheterization (now referred to as an angiogram). A little over a month before the possible life changing procedure, Preston’s father died in a tragic tractor accident leaving her mother widowed with six children. Preston was then diagnosed with a Complete Congenital Heart Block.
“By the time I turned six, my heart rate was between 20 and 40 beats per minute,” said Preston. “They didn’t know what to do with me.” (The average six year old has a heart rate of 75 to 115 beats per minute.)
Having a Complete Congenital Heart Block did not slow Preston down for her childhood. She enjoyed baseball, basketball and high jump but had to be careful not to let her heart rate drop too quickly or she would faint. In her late teens, her symptoms started to worsen.
“I would get bad cramps in my hands and feet so they would tell me to put them in warm water but we didn’t have running water so I would usually be calling for mom before that happened and then I would pass out. She would find me laying on the floor,” Preston explained. “That was happening often between the ages of 15-17. It was happening three to four times a day. I would go in (to Winnipeg Children’s Hospital) every three months and they would just tell us to keep praying for a miracle.”
“Nighttimes were always the hardest for me because I was afraid to go to sleep because sometime I could count between 16-20 seconds in-between beats. It was so slow, that I thought I would fall asleep and not wake up,” described Preston.
At the age of 17, Preston was admitted to the hospital with an extremely low heartrate. The cardiologist at the time, Dr. Cuddy, decided that her only chance of survival was a pacemaker. An emergency surgery was done that night for a temporary pacemaker.
“They put it through the vein in the arm, into the heart and I wore it around my neck.” Preston said. “It increased my heartrate to about 60 (beats per minute).
To control abnormal heart rhythms, a pacemaker is placed in the chest. The now small device uses electrical pulses to help the heart beat at a normal rate. They were not invented until the late 1950’s and it was unheard of at the time for a young person to have one. Preston’s first pacemaker was the size of a hockey puck, although much heavier. She was the first child to receive one in Manitoba.
“Normally they would put them in the tummy but we (Dr. Cuddy and Preston) devised that it was too big because I was just 80 some pounds at the time so he made a pocket under my arm to put it in,” Preston said. “That way if I was playing basketball there was no chance of it being hit.”
After getting her pacemaker, Preston was told by Dr. Cuddy that she may receive two or three pacemakers in her life. To date, Preston has received over 20 different pacemakers and just celebrated 50 years with one.
“My biggest problem when I first got my pacemaker was that Dr. Cuddy told me one in one thousand may reject it,” said Preston. “I was the one in one thousand and I did reject it. My whole Grade 11 year I was in the hospital. I think I was only in school two months that year.”
Luckily, Preston had an amazing teacher and principal who made sure she passed her Grade 11 year. Her teacher sent all assignments to the hospital for her to work on and when it came time for exams, her principal fought hard to bring them to her. The school board had agreed to let her write her exams out of school as long as the principal sat with her the whole time and he did. She passed all but two exams which she just ended up taking her Grade 12 year. Preston then went on to graduate from school but still had struggles with her pacemakers.
“I was a patient (at the Health Science Centre) because my pacemaker was acting up so Dr. Cuddy put me in the hospital. I walked the halls and I saw a sign that they were looking for EKG techs to train on the job,” Preston said. “I went down to HR in my housecoat and slippers and applied for the job which I ended up getting. When Dr. Cuddy came to see me I said, ‘Oh by the way I’m going to be working with you’.”
Preston trained to be an EKG technician and maintained a close relationship with one of her mentors, Dr. Cuddy. When she married and moved to Russell, Preston gave up being an EKG technician as her husband worked in the lab at the hospital. She then worked in childcare for ten years in Binscarth and then became a full time paramedic.
“It took a lot of work and trips to see him to get him to sign my medical papers because he (Dr. Cuddy) kept saying, ‘Do you think you can do it?’ and I said to him ‘Dr. Cuddy, I can’,” Preston said.
Another time that she had to convince her doctor her pacemaker wasn’t going to slow her down was when she and her husband decided they wanted to start a family.
“When I decided I wanted to have kids he didn’t really want me to have them because they didn’t know how my heart would react,” said Preston. “He then said, ‘If you come in your last month of your pregnancy and stay in Winnipeg and deliver in Winnipeg’ (She could have a child).”
Preston went on to have three healthy boys with little complications. At a young age, she taught her children about her pacemaker, what to do in an emergency, how to dial 911 and how to perform CPR.
A pacemaker today is small and can last eight to ten years. Preston predicts that one day she will also need an internal defibrillator and knows she will need a new pacemaker. After 50 years of having a pacemaker, Preston is truly a miracle and loves to share her story especially to help educate people. There is so much more to learn and she has a lot more to share with everyone.