Real Life

Kiwi playwright revels his battle with flesh-eating bacteria

Jason Te Mete opens up about his terrifying battle with flesh-eating bacteria
Michelle Hyslop

When Jason Te Mete stepped forward to take a bow in front of a rapturous audience at the opening night of Auckland Theatre Company’s Heartbreak Choir, few would have realised what a triumphant moment it was for the Tauranga-born musician and playwright.

Just two years ago, Jason, 42, lay in Auckland Hospital in an induced coma, hooked up to numerous machines, as he battled a deadly flesh-eating bacteria caused by an insect bite he received at a friend’s barbecue in late 2021.

“We were having a few beers, a nice meal and just hanging out, then I got the bite,” recalls Jason, who didn’t see what stung him but felt it instantly, asking for some antiseptic to rub into his reddening right elbow.

The next morning, at home in Auckland, he felt groggy and had a headache, but he put it down to a mild hangover. Two days later, though, Jason was still unwell, wanted to go to the toilet frequently – a sign his kidneys were failing – and, later that night, passed out.

Despite his protestations, his flatmate Rachel called an ambulance. Jason only vaguely recalls the ride to hospital and what happened when he arrived. “I remember lying in A&E and them saying, ‘Does he have any family here?’ Then that’s it.”

He woke up 10 days later, having had six major surgeries to cut away the necrotising fasciitis that was eating through the soft tissue of his arm and causing septic shock, shutting down his organs. While Jason – who is of Ngāti Ranginui and Ngai te Rangi descent – remained intubated in a coma, his worried family and friends kept vigil at the hospital.

Jason’s case was so severe, his brother André, mum Jenny and sister Nicole were warned he might not survive.

Mum Jenny, 66, an administrator at a Bay of Plenty medical centre, recalls she learned of Jason’s dash to hospital while relaxing at home after a busy day. “I got a call to say Jason had been taken to the hospital with an insect bite. I thought, ‘Oh, well, it’s obviously infected, so they’ll just give him some IV antibiotics and he’ll be fine.'”

But another call soon followed, saying Jenny needed to come to Auckland. Joined by Jason’s older brother André and younger sister Nicole, she drove through the evening. They reached Auckland Hospital at 1am, in time to spend a few minutes with a bloated and unconscious Jason, before he was wheeled into surgery, where they were warned he might not survive.

At hospital with his aunt Heather.

The family remained steadfast in their support as Jason initially fought for his life and then, once the immediate danger was past, started on a two-year journey to heal and recover the use of his arm. In that time, there have been two rehabilitations, as well as mental health support.

Recovery was made trickier because, early on, Jason experienced a stroke-like condition, which has caused minor but frustrating damage to his vision. One of the first big shocks was seeing his arm stripped of its flesh and covered in a thin surgical film that was stapled on, which made Jason want to vomit.

For weeks, Jason could barely move his fingers or carry out simple tasks. An accomplished pianist, he knew he might never play again and avoided even looking at a piano.

In early 2021, he moved back to Tauranga to live with Jenny and sat down to play with his left hand, but he says, “I didn’t want to be that one-handed pianist guy.”

Describing himself as a natural optimist, Jason has long been focused on mental wellbeing. He even cofounded his own production company Tuatara Collective to make theatre that tackles challenging subjects in a way that’s safe and supportive for audiences and performers.

But despite his outlook, Jason acknowledges there have been difficult times and challenges during his recovery. He tells, “There’s the old cliché that everything happens for a reason, which really annoyed me. I know that’s what people naturally want to say to avoid awkwardness, but I wanted to wallow in it and feel a bit rubbish for at least a year, which I did. The next year was about getting above that and moving on. My friends said my arm might not be the same, but I’ve still got the same crazy, creative brain.”

Mum has been Jason’s rock.

Remarkably, Jason returned to Tuatara Collective later in 2021, helping to create plays for Tauranga’s Māori-immersion school Te Wharekura o Mauao, making shows at Auckland’s Basement Theatre and now crafting the largescale He Toi Kupu, planned for Tauranga in April.

A jubilant Jason walked into Auckland Theatre Company to start work as musical director on the uplifting comedy The Heartbreak Choir exactly two years and one day after his first surgeries.

“It was a great feeling. All my therapists said I had to give it two years before making any big decisions. There was a bit of hesitation. I wasn’t sure I could manage it because ATC is a big company and this is a big project, but I thought, ‘Nah, I’ll just do it!'”

Auckland Theatre Company’s Heartbreak Choir is on now until Saturday 4 March. For tickets, visit atc.co.nz.

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