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‘It’s just a miracle I’m alive,’ Florence Symphony Orchestra trombonist says

September 16, 2018

FLORENCE, S.C. – Gordon MacKenzie is a man of many interests. A horologist by trade, MacKenzie spends his days repairing and rebuilding antique clocks.

“I sort of have a photographic memory, which helps me a lot in this business,” he said.

A self-described “pack rat,” his appreciation for antiques is evident. A restored Chevy Nova, painted cherry red, sits among his collection of vintage clocks, antique lawn mowers and endless gears and gadgets.

MacKenzie still rides his three-speed AMF bicycle from childhood and still plays the same Yamaha trombone that he got in high school.

“I’ve been a classical music nut all my life. I just love it!” said MacKenzie, a trombonist for the Florence Symphony Orchestra for over 30 years.

It’s that love of music and passion for precision that have kept MacKenzie going through unimaginable health problems.

“It’s just a miracle I’m alive,” he said.

While MacKenzie was growing up in Massachusetts, he began playing the trombone at the age of 10. His family moved to Philadelphia when he was in high school, and MacKenzie had the opportunity to attend the Settlement Music School, one of the largest and oldest community schools of the arts in the United States.

In 1976, he marched in the Bicentennial Parade in Philadelphia.

“We had new wool band uniforms, and it was July,” he said. “It was so hot I thought I was going to die! We only had one march memorized, the Gladiator by Sousa, and we played it over and over and over for five miles!”

In 1984, MacKenzie was looking for a teaching job.

“One of the reasons why I came to Florence was because the brochure sent from the school district said that Florence had a symphony orchestra,” he said. “I joined the FSO in 1985 and have been here ever since. I taught elementary school for four years and then worked as a counselor for Pee Dee Mental Health until 2013.”

Shortly before his 40th birthday, MacKenzie collapsed. He had a heart murmur and valve prolapse. Repairs were done, and he recovered within three months. But 10 years later, he started having symptoms of heart failure – not being able to breathe, having trouble sleeping, walking with shortness of breath – and it got steadily worse. He was at Duke Hospital when he was told he had two months to live. MacKenzie needed a new heart.

To keep him alive until a new heart was available, a left ventricular assist device (LVAD) was implanted to help pump blood from his heart to the rest of his body. When the LVAD was installed, however, MacKenzie had a stroke and was in a coma for a week.

“I woke up with no damage, which was an absolute miracle!” he said. “Though I looked like I was straight out of the ‘Walking Dead’! At this point I was 100 pounds and as white as a ghost.”

Four months later, MacKenzie got the call that they had a donor. The emergency surgery required him to get to Duke Hospital right away. That night, doctors began the operation, and 12 hours later he had a new heart.

“While recovering, I took a year off from the symphony,” he said. “I’m a bit of a risk taker. So, 18 months after the transplant, my son and I climbed Mount Washington in New Hampshire. It wasn’t easy. It took me eight hours, and when I got to the top, I about passed out.”

MacKenzie is starting his 34th season with the FSO.

“I’m a blessed man, and it’s a miracle of God I’m alive,” he said. “It is a privilege to be with this group that has come from such humble beginnings to where we are now. The symphony has grown, matured and gotten better and better over the years with the leadership of conductor Terry Roberts.”

Pamela Glass is the executive director of the Florence Symphony Orchestra.

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