Lying on a gurney in Christchurch Hospital minutes after suffering a severe heart attack, Jason Gunn reckoned it was the perfect time for a bit of light relief. He admits his gags were average at best – “but come on, give me a break. I’d just had a heart attack!”
A nurse informed him he was about to be taken upstairs for surgery to remove a total blockage in one of his arteries, that there’d be about 12 people standing over him and it could be rather frightening. His response?
“Oh, it’s okay. I quite like an audience.”
He’s afraid of needles and “anything vaguely medical”, so he asked the doctors if they had ever worked with kids before, “Because, hello. That’s me.” He threw out a few more jokes, but when he got no reaction other than increasingly grim expressions, Jason started to panic.
“I’m a great fisherman for people’s feelings,” he explains. “I throw things out there and in times of stress, I try to lighten the mood... But I didn’t have to be much of a body language expert to go, ‘Oh, okay. These people know some serious s--- and I can see I’m in it'.”
For the second time that day, Jason (48) thought his time might just be up.
It’s been 10 weeks since the much-loved broadcaster suffered a life-threatening heart attack, and as he sits and chats with the Weekly beside his beloved wife of 21 years, Janine Morrell-Gunn (54), it’s clear Jason’s moving just a little bit slower than his usual frenetic pace.
But even after a massive medical event, it’s still hard to keep up with Jason.
After more than half an hour of chatting, we’ve already been treated to enough jokes to fill a stand-up routine, which have been delivered with his usual panache and cheery optimism, including a brilliant Mrs Doubtfire-esque impression of his Scottish nurse, and a scarily accurate impersonation of The Exponents’ lead singer Jordan Luck, who rang him in hospital to assure him that life is in fact “bloody long” and he didn’t have anything to worry about.
While the old Jason is definitely still there, there’s unmistakable signs of a new, slightly more vulnerable Jason – one who needs to excuse himself to grab a piece of toast so he can take one of his six daily tablets from his bright pink pill container.
“Sorry, old granddad over here!” he says cheerily as he sits back down and settles himself into a chair in the family’s lounge.
“They only had pink containers when we were leaving the hospital,” Janine tells, stifling a giggle. “Every time he takes a pill, he says he feels like an old lady.”
So, is he okay? Jason pauses before he answers the question.
“Well, yes, I am okay. I’m... I’m still in it,” he says.
“It’s more than a wake-up call. You’re supposed to get that whole cliché, aren’t you, and then, next month, the book by Jason Gunn comes out that says, ‘This has changed my life. I’m going to slow down.’ I don’t know. It’s not in the past yet. It still affects me every day, more so mentally now. I’m still on the rollercoaster and hopefully, the big loops are behind me.”
It’s been quite a journey for Jason, Janine and the four kids – Eve (27) and Grace (22) from Janine’s first marriage, and their two children Faith (18) and Louis (14) – since Jason was taken ill on January 31.
Jason was in the gym when he felt a painful, “weird” feeling in his chest, similar to a hunger pain.
“I’d felt it the day before, but after 15 minutes, it went away,” he shrugs. “I know now that was an angina attack – my body giving me a heads up. But this time, it wasn’t going away.”
Driving himself to Whitebait Studios, the production company he runs with Janine, his wife took one look at him and ordered him to the doctor.
“He was as white as a ghost. So a staff member drove him to the doctor – but he’s still editing away on his laptop in the car. No-one at that stage would have guessed he’d had a heart attack.”
But as soon as his doctor hooked Jason up to an ECG machine, which measures the electrical activity of the heart, he told the More FM host to call Janine and tell her he’d be at the hospital. His doctor, meanwhile called an ambulance.
Soon after, Jason collapsed.
“That was the first time I thought, ‘Jeez, this could all end today',” Jason says of the moment he realised he was about to pass out.
Meanwhile, a terrified Janine drove to the doctor’s to meet her husband and travel in the ambulance to the hospital. Doctors quickly realised that one of Jason’s arteries was blocked and he needed emergency surgery to insert a stent to open it.
“That was the worst part for me – when they wheeled him away for the surgery,” Janine remembers.
“It happened so fast and after, you wander through the hospital until you get to the part where you hopefully meet them afterwards. The exact same thing happened with my dad and he never came out. I had a lot of déjà vu, but calling the family and getting the kids to the hospital kept my mind from thinking the worst.”
Jason was also worried as he was prepared for surgery.
“I’m lying in the bed while they’re sorting out the stent and one of the nurses leans in to ask me, ‘Are you having a few words with the guy upstairs?’” recalls Jason. “I went, ‘Eh?’ Then I realised I’d been repeating, ‘Evie, Grace, Faith, Louie’ – the kids’ names, over and over again. I couldn’t deal with what was going on. I thought that was it. I thought, ‘Oh, this could get very, very bad'.”
Thankfully, the surgery was a success – and following a short period of massive relief, the recovery began.
“I remember he was too scared to sleep,” tells Janine. “We’d just watch the heart rate monitor.”
Jason also struggled to come to terms with the fact he’d had a heart attack in the first place.
“The whole thing is surreal because I never put myself in the camp of being at risk,” he explains. “My blood pressure has always been fine, cholesterol, a little high but still fine. I look after myself. In my head, I’m still 23!”
He continues, “You know what it was? I thought my body was better than that. And it wasn’t. I don’t smoke or drink. I’ve had years of people thinking, ‘Oh, Jason Gunn’s definitely on some sort of drug,’ but for the record – and you can speak to my cardiologist – he’ll tell you I’ve never done any of it!” he laughs.
Rather, family history – heart conditions affect both sides of his family, including his dad – played its part, as well as plain old bad luck.
“For God’s sake, people. Check your history out,” urges Jason. He also admits he could manage his stress levels better.
After convalescing at home for a few weeks, Jason is back working at More FM. However, he admits the time he had off did help clarify a few things – what’s important and even more significantly, what’s not.
“When you’re lying in a hospital bed, it’s amazing the things you think about and the things you don’t,” he nods.
“Instantly, it’s Janine and the kids. Then you cast your mind to the rest of your life. I love my job with Lana [Searle] at More FM – I call her my sister from another mister. But there’s a few things I’ll stop doing now.
“I’ve had a lot of time to think about things. I got to make children’s TV during a wonderful period – there was no internet, I was a babysitter and a friend. I’m so grateful for that. But then I feel like I got caught up in it. Then there was other stuff, Dancing with the Stars, game shows – if the networks offered me work, I’d take it. Mostly, it was stuff I’m proud of, but some of it was a mistake.
“But I feel like I was on automatic pilot through it and I sort of feel this heart attack has taken me off that now. I need to be truer to myself in terms of what I want to do.”
But don’t confuse his impending selectiveness with slowing down, though. During the first few weeks of his recovery, he didn’t have much choice – he was so weak, he could barely walk to the kitchen.
“My cardiologist told me, ‘For the love of God, Jason, don’t have a personality bypass,’” tells Jason.
“He said, ‘People will tell you to slow down, but there’s enough slow people in the world. That’s not what got you into trouble.’ And he’s right. I can’t change who I am. But he also told me – I love this line – that I’ve been given a gift. He told me, ‘You’ve got permission – if you want to find God, maybe unfind God. If you want to change city, change house, change the way you dress, shave your head, whatever, you can'.
“Because,” Jason adds, grinning and dropping his voice low, “People will just say, ‘Well, he did just have a heart attack!’”
Janine concedes the last few weeks have been tough on the family, with the kids especially worried their dad wouldn’t quite be the same.
Getting rid of a lot of his social media has helped, says Jason, who found he didn’t miss it at all during his recovery.
“In my business, you do polarise people,” he shrugs. “I’m a colourful character. There’s people who go, ‘Oh! Jase! Hi!’ and then there’s those who can’t stand the ground I walk on. I’m a sensitive person, so sometimes you do think, ‘Oooh, okay. That’s harsh.’
“But I don’t miss that sea of negativity online. When did we all agree that it’s okay to be so negative?”
However, he was immensely grateful for the thousands of messages he received from people across the nation.
“I was incredibly humbled, thank you. And huge thanks also to the wonderful doctors and nurses at Christchurch Hospital. Janine and I, and the kids, look forward to helping make our local health system even better as new ambassadors to the Maia Health Foundation [fund-raising arm of the hospital],” he says.
And now his eyes – and heart – are fixed firmly towards the future, a future he has almost figured out the shape of. While it’ll be as busy as ever, Jason does, however, make one concession.
“Here’s what I noticed about me,” he says, grinning as he finishes his last piece of toast.
“I used to run everywhere. People used to ask why and think I was late. I wasn’t, I was just always in a hurry! But after everything that’s happened, I’m enjoying a simple pleasure. It’s called walking. You put one foot in front of the other, slowly...”
And with that, he’s off – walking. Slowly. Happily.