I once spent 39 days living on an island in Fiji, with a group of strangers, cutting coconuts with machetes and trying to sleep curled up in the sand next to a small fire. I was the runner up on Survivor 33: Millennials vs. GenX. Our first night on the beaches of Fiji was spent huddling together for warmth while a cyclone destroyed our camp, and that really set the tone. A different location brought bugs so awful that we would stay awake, waiting for the tides to go in, and the flies to leave our ears. By the end of my time, I was a skeleton of my starting self, depleted and loopy beyond anything I had experienced before. Still, it was the strangest, best adventure I've ever had!
During my time on the island, I lost over 20 pounds, my legs were covered in bites, and my hair was tangled up into a lovely nest of curls and sticks. I remember coming home, looking in the mirror and thinking, this is not my body. And the toll it had on my mind? Well, that's a tale for a different time.
As you've probably heard Jeff Probst mention on camera, there's a team of medical professionals on Survivor ready to assist at a moment's notice—including the dashing Doctor Joe, who has appeared onscreen many times. When Caleb Reynolds was evacuated for medical reason during Survivor 32: Koah Rong, Jeff Probst told EW: "As for our medical department, I could write for hours and still not say enough good things about Dr. Joe Rowles and his team. It takes a situation like this to truly see what someone is made of and the kind of leader they are in a crisis."
Like any extreme sport that had a baby with extreme camping, Survivor takes a physical toll. And on Survivor 38: Edge of Extinction—which features another island where eliminated players struggle to get back in the game—conditions are as intense as ever. I've collected a tribe of former castaways who each spent many days on the island to tell their stories of how Survivor affected their bodies.
Survivors ready: Go!
Survivor 36: Ghost Island (35 days)
"Multiple parasites, hookworms and tapeworms."
"I was lucky enough to live on an island for 35 days. Survivor pushed my body in ways I had never even imagined. I put on approximately 10 pounds before the game started. I lost all of that, and quite a bit more during that month—up to almost 12 % of my body weight. My weight fluctuated not only during the game, but afterwards, as well. In the course of prepping for the show, losing weight in the game, gorging myself after, losing weight for the live finale, and finally evening out, my weight fluctuated 70 pounds.
"The extra toll the Survivor experience took on my body was getting multiple parasites, hookworms and tapeworms. It took over a year to solve the puzzle. I started to have issues with my urinary tract and couldn't figure out what was wrong. After multiple doctors, natural medicine practitioners, and tests, we figured out that the medication I had been taking to try to get rid of the bugs and worms was wrecking my bladder and entire urinary system. I have been off the island for 19 months, and I am just now getting off all of the medications to repair my gastrointestinal tract and urinary tract.
"Nothing is permanent, and yes, I’d still do it all over again! Also, I still don’t really like coconut, and rice will never be the same."
Survivor 22: Redemption Island (37 days); Survivor 26: Caramoan (33 days); Survivor 34: Game Changers (33 days)
"I spent an entire week in the hospital."
"Survivor definitely did a number on my body! I lost 11 pounds on my third season of Survivor, but then things became much worse when I developed a kidney infection that had likely started while still on the island. Once I got to the States, I spent an entire week in the hospital with a very severe kidney infection that even cause my heart to be in a weakened state! My family flew out to NYC to visit me in the hospital, I think they thought I was going to die, since my organs weren't working properly. Side note, this is when I learned I have a PFO, which is a small hole in my heart! This was not caused by my time on Survivor, it's actually a fairly common condition, but I find it amusing to know I have a physical hole to match the metaphorical hole in my heart. The more you know! Anyway, my kidneys are fine now.
"I also noticed my metabolism is much worse now than it was before playing Survivor, probably due to the three times of starving myself randomly for over a month at a time. I still have scars on my knees from bug bites that got infected in the Philippines, and I now have melasma, which is hyperpigmentation of the skin on my face, which became really pronounced under the hot Fijian sun. Still, it's all worth it for the experience, right? Maybe I'm crazy."
Survivor 33: Millennials Vs. GenX (36 days)
"My foot had turned into an elephant's foot."
"Survivor definitely take a toll on the body for every type of person that plays. Considering I’m an athletic type of guy, one of my biggest concerns was definitely the nutrition aspect of the game. Would I be starving, or be able to withstand having little food? But what most seem to forget, like I did, was injuries. They can happen anywhere and everywhere during the game.
"Most people don’t know that I sprained my ankle mid way through. I wrapped it with my sock and kept playing. Although it was painful, you can’t show weakness, and you have to keep pushing because of the adrenaline. That adrenaline definitely keeps your body afloat. During my last couple days, I had cut my foot on the reef and never even felt the pain or realized it was infected.
"The moment I was voted out and the adrenaline subsided, that infection really spread and got worse fast! My foot had turned into an elephant’s foot, and was swollen for weeks even post game. They had to rip the infection out while on the island with only numbing cream and antibiotics. For weeks, I had to be on medicine for it to finally go down. Thank god it didn’t happen in the beginning of the game. Anyway, Survivor is such an intense rush and [there are] so many aspects you have to consider that I didn’t plan on—that being one of them—but I sure did learn."
Survivor 35: Ghost Island (winner, 39 days)
"Really does a number on your mind."
"Before Survivor I was a pescatarian because I wanted to live a healthier life. Leading up to the show, I tried some other meats to get my stomach used to new things. I knew that if I made it far, there would be a high likelihood of me winning food rewards, and no matter what the reward, I’d want to eat as much as possible. And that happened! I was literally starving out there, shedding pounds, eating only coconuts, a very small portion of rice, and an occasional small fish/snail/crab/hermit crab/conch. But, I was able to win three great food rewards, providing me one epic taco Tuesday, a fried chicken reward, and a steak dinner. I’m glad I prepared my stomach a bit, as I devoured all that food, and subsequently, it ran right through me. I’ll spare y’all the deets.
"After winning Survivor, I came home 26 lbs. down. I was emaciated. I was a skeleton. I went right back to playing basketball in leagues and with my buddies and I was horrible! And I can hoop, I promise! I didn’t know what was up with my game. It took months to realize that me losing so much weight and nourishment led to me getting thrown around on the court, and [becoming] fatigued much faster than before. What was even worse was my mindset—Survivor really does a number on your mental state. And, if that isn’t in order, other things easily crumble. Even though I ultimately won, being in a prolonged state of food and sleep deprivation, and amongst 19 other folks that solely want to lie, cheat, and backstab you, really does a number on your mind. You come home with trust issues, you come home ultra-sensitive, and it affects everyone in their own ways. For me, staying true to myself and very close with my family really helped get me over that hump. Oh yeah, and ribs, chicken wings, bacon cheeseburgers, lemon squares, and brownies. That all helped for the immediate two months after the island. Now, back to my pescatarian ways."
Survivor 32: Kaoh Rong (19 days)
"Felt like it was tearing my flesh apart."
"I was evacuated by Jeff on Day 19, idol in hand.
"In Survivor I gathered giant clams, oysters, crabs, fish, and even killed a sting ray with a hatchet. This activity, paired with the environment, left (me) feeling depleted. We were in Cambodia, where the humid, hot days seemed to slowly suck the will out of you. Rainy nights could mean hours of shivering fighting off hypothermia, despite the daytimes being insufferably hot. Compounding it all was the sleep deprivation. I doubt that I averaged more than four hours a night.
"On the afternoon of Day 15, a few hours after a challenge, I had a pain appear close to my knee, as well as what looked like a pimple, though deeper in the skin than a pimple would be. Despite having it lanced that afternoon, an infection erupted over the coming days, causing a mountainous open wound that spewed puss at an impressive rate. It continued to grow and cleave open, while my body seemed to do nothing to fight it off. Nor did the antibiotics. Yet Mt. Saint Neal, as I named it on a whim when Jeff asked me about it at the first individual immunity challenge, was only my second largest infection. I had one on my back that the doctor squeezed with both hands before that same challenge, which felt like it was tearing my flesh apart. I ended up getting pulled from the game later in the day.
"I was medically evacuated out of an abundance of caution so that I didn't end up with a permanent disability. After a couple boat rides and a bus ride across the country, I found myself staring at the ceiling of a Phnom Penh hospital as a doctor scraped the infection out a my knee with what looked like a miniature melon baller. I was kept in the hospital for a total of two nights. I was amazed at how well I bounced back, though it certainly wasn't quite to 100%. The wounds would ultimately take about two weeks to fully close (about six weeks before my infections were fully healed), but there is nothing like unlimited food and sleep to restore a body. "
Survivor 30: Worlds Apart (winner, 39 days)
"Survivor put this middle-aged man through the ringer."
"Thirty-five pounds skinnier, 20% of my muscle mass lost. And you say a million dollars is worth it? You bet your sweet a** it is. [He won.] Thirty-nine days did a number on me. With little food, your body goes into shut down mode. It’s almost like being in cold water where your blood constricts to vital areas.
"I could not eat when I got home and when I did, it was a binge fest causing even worse stomach issues. Parasites are a real thing—there are pictures to prove it. Yeah, Survivor put this middle-aged man through the ringer but it sure was worth it."
Survivor 33: Millennials Vs. GenX (35 days)
"I’m in the emergency room facing surgery due to a bug bite?"
"I’m in the emergency room facing surgery due to a bug bite? It was all surreal…
"I started the game at a robust 150 pounds, not something I was happy about, but even so I was completely healthy. Aside from an incident with a giant splinter which produced a giant blister on my big toe, I had zero issues. I lasted 35 of the 39 days in the game. Immediately upon being voted out, my vitals were taken, and I was weighed, which quite possibly could have been my favorite part of the game as I weighed in at 125. I lost 25 pounds.
"The day after the game we were packed and ready to head back to the US. I remember getting bitten by a bug on my arm near my elbow but thought nothing of it, I had multiple bug bites throughout the game. While we waited to board our flight from FIJI to the USA, I noticed my arm was hot to the touch and all I thought to myself was, that’s weird. After a 12-hour flight we landed in LA where I’d wait another five hours for my flight home, by this time my arm is not only hot, it’s starting to swell. I landed in Minneapolis and the swelling had increased, going from my forearm to my triceps area.
"The next morning at urgent care, I was put on antibiotics. My arm continued to swell. It was later that evening that I found myself in the emergency room: Just hours earlier I had started to slur my words and lose my ability to walk in a straight line (temperature 104.5). The doctor explained they’d be running tests to determine the type of infection that was raging in my body. The bug bite was on my elbow and because of the location the concern was that bursitis could settle into the bone, therefore they would need to perform surgery in order to completely eliminate the infection. My doctor was utterly puzzled at my physical state pointing out I was malnourished, iron defiant and had dangerously low blood pressure. I finally explained why I had been I Fiji. The look on his face was priceless.
"The next day, the surgeon informed us that my elbow would require surgery, not only one but two surgeries. Both surgeries went great and I have a scar on my arm as a reminder of my time in FIJI. There has never been a single moment or day I regretted leaving my family for an adventure all on my own."
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