Surviving the Island

First Aid with the Cast and Crew of Survivor

Gary Stritesky,
Gary Stritesky, "Papa Smurf" of the Moto tribe, being evacuated from Survivor: Fiji. Monty Brinton/CBS ©2006 CBS Broadcasting Inc.

Survivor is the granddaddy of all reality game shows, and I've been a fan since the beginning. I've always loved the twisted fun of watching a team that has to work together while simultaneously planning how to oust each other.

Come to think of it, it's a bit like a typical office.

Of course, the average cubicle is a far cry from the Australian Outback or an island in the South Pacific. For one thing, there aren't too many poisonous snakes or deadly campfires to worry about.

The biggest injury likely to befall an average office worker is the occasional nasty paper cut or knife in the back.

In case of something really terrible, like salmonella poisoning from the Casual Friday potluck lunch, the folks at the office can just call 911.

Not so for the average contestant on Survivor, hence the name of the show.

Wilderness Medicine - Hollywood Style

On Survivor, all the real life dangers present a unique challenge to the crew of the secretive TV show. They work in remote locations and build elaborate sets, with little or no contact to the outside world for more than three months.

Who do they call when they get hurt? They call the producers, and the producers call for the--mostly Australian--medics.

In 2006, I contacted Dr. Adrian Cohen from Immediate Assistants, an Australian company that provides medical teams for events. Dr. Cohen provided us with an inside look at the emergency medical care available to the cast and crew of Survivor.

The show's on-site medical team consists of three nurses, three paramedics, and three doctors. The team follow protocols registered in Australia and based on international advanced life support guidelines. Cohen says the team also registers with emergency medical services in whatever country they're filming.

"We are responsible for up to 400 crew (and several native villages), VIPs, Media and local staff as well as the 16-20 contestants," said Dr. Cohen via email. He said the medical team provides "over 1500 medical consultations for each show (6 weeks pre-production and 2 weeks post on location)."

That's a lot of visits to the doctor.

An Outback ER

Cohen said that to maintain such a level of care in the remote locations where Survivor films, Immediate Assistants has to bring the hospital to the crew.

"We bring over half a million dollars worth of medical supplies and emergency medical equipment to each location…an "outback ER"…and can cater for anything up to major trauma, head or spinal injuries, heart attack, and allergic-shock," Cohen said.

Mostly, said Cohen, the team handles everyday, urban-style complaints out there in the wilderness.

"We have in effect a small city, and get the usual urban problems: coughs, colds, aches and sprains," Cohen said. "Each location is also an industrial workplace, with construction crews, art department, etc."

Since they shoot in remote overseas environments, explained Cohen, travel illnesses are also common, particularly gastroenteritis (Travelers Diarrhea).

Survivor's medical team can handle most of what the jungle can throw at them right there in the bush. "Most issues (over 99%) are handled on location," Cohen said. "On a few occasions, outside hospitals have been used whilst competitors are on location or shortly after having been voted off."

Page 2 looks at evacuating contestants back to civilization and more Survivor first aid.

Page 1 introduced Dr. Adrian Cohen and the medical team for the TV reality show, Survivor. What happens when a contestant needs to leave the island for medical reasons?

Booted Off the Island

In case the team needs to evacuate a patient to a higher level of care, Cohen said they make prior arrangements with hospitals, both local and distant. Transport to a hospital can take as little as an hour to as much as six hours.

Cohen said they use any means available - car, boat, helicopter, or plane - and they make sure they have those resources arranged ahead of time.

Cohen said the decision to evacuate a contestant is made by the medical team in consultation with the show's producers. There's a million bucks at stake, so contestants are probably willing to take more risks than they should. Cohen insisted that the decision to evacuate a contestant is made in the best interests of the contestant - not the show.

Michael Skupin, Paschal English, Bruce Kanegai, and Colton Cumbie are some of the contestants who've been evacuated to hospitals on past seasons of the show.

Skupin fell into a fire after being overcome by smoke in Australia during Season 2. Cohen said Skupin spent three weeks as an inpatient and having rehab in Queensland following his accident. He managed to go home at the same time as the other contestants.

English had a cardiac problem during Season 4 in Marquesas. He was medically evacuated back to Los Angeles at the end of filming.

Kanegi developed a bowel obstruction and had to be hospitalized during Season 12 in Panama. He made it back to the show in time to be on the jury.

Cumbie was perhaps the most controversial evacuee of the show.

On Season 24, he was removed from the game with what appeared to be abdominal pain that the medical crew thought might be appendicitis. Jeff Probst, longtime host and co-creator of the show, has since expressed on the record to various media outlets that he believes the condition was not real.

Spiders and Snakes

Burns, heart attacks, and bowel obstructions can happen anywhere, but the dangers of living and working alongside local plant and wildlife present unique dangers at each location. Poisonous critters are a big concern.

"As part of our Medical Risk Assessment," said Cohen, "we bring location-specific anti-venom for snakes, Box Jelly Fish etc." Camera crews are also trained in basic first aid and snake bite treatment.

Cohen said contestants can ask for medical assistance at any time and the team is almost always fewer than 10-15 minutes away.

The medical team is on set with the contestants whenever they are gathered together in one place - at challenges and tribal councils, for example. When the team is not with the contestants, they can be summoned by any crewmember.

Comfort or Care?

Contestants don't have to be evacuated to get medical care - nor are they automatically disqualified for receiving help.

It seems like a fine line, but Cohen suggested that contestants are allowed to receive medical care to keep them healthy, but not necessarily comfortable. "They need stitches, they get them," he said, "but not minor dressings, Ibuprofen or other 'pampering.'"

"Our role is to keep contestants in the show, intervening where appropriate but without conferring an unfair advantage," explained Cohen. "We stress the importance of contestants learning the value of water and looking after their own hydration, but on a few occasions have had to administer IV fluids."

Some miracles of modern medicine do follow the contestants to their primitive lives on the show.

Cohen said feminine hygiene products are "always discreetly available off camera." As well, he said, birth control or any other regular prescriptions any contestant is taking are also available.

It's good to know that CBS isn't planning on letting any game show contestants keel over dead in the race to garner ratings. As a fan of the show, though, I admit I'm a little disappointed that the Survivors were never in any real danger. Several have made on-camera comments about how dangerous it is out there.

Well, sort of.

So, has the rugged Jeff Probst ever needed the medical team's services?

"Jeff gets the usual crew woes: coughs, colds etc," said Cohen, "and I put stitches into his hand during a well-publicized 'machete mistake' during Survivor: Vanuatu."

Hah! After all these years, maybe Probst is the only true Survivor.