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'Survivor': Russell Swan talks about his serious health scare

Jeff Probst and Russell Swan on "Survivor" "Survivor" had one of the most terrifying episodes in its history Thursday night as Russell Swan, a 42-year-old attorney from Pennsylvania, collapsed during a challenge after suffering severe malnutrition and dehydration. After calling the event the scariest he's ever witnessed on the show, host Jeff Probst pulled the Galu tribe leader from the game. This morning, I spoke to Russell about what it was like to watch that horrible moment on television, whether he believes Jeff was right to take him out, and why his tribe hated Shambo so much.

It must have been pretty scary to watch that episode last night!

Wow, Amy, that's the understatement of the year. It was completely different from what I remember. I felt like I was in a sauna and they were putting ice water on me. But this guy looked like he was about to die.

So you don't remember any of it?

I have a memory, but it wasn't that. My memory was: Erik and I were pushing a ball. I definitely get tired, like, "Are we gonna get there yet?" I do remember running into stuff, but I'm blindfolded. I take a knee because I'm winded and I uppercut myself with the puzzle. I can't believe I knocked myself out. I laid there for about five minutes and they kick me out of the game. Of course, it was different than that. My wife was definitely freaking out. She was very upset, and I felt bad because I couldn't prepare for that. I really didn't know that it was that bad at all.

Looking back, do you agree with Jeff's decision to pull you from the game?

Oh, hell yeah. I was dying. I looked at my eyes. That's what got me -- my eyes. My wife was screaming, "Oh my gosh, you're dead! You're dead!" And I grabbed her and was like, "I'm fine, I'm fine. We're here. That happened some time ago." But when I saw that footage. ... Had they not taken me out, it would have definitely been negligent on their part.

Jeff said it was the most scared he's ever been in the history of the show.

I heard that, but until that time I thought, "This is Jeff just being Jeff and being a little dramatic because that's what he gets paid to do." But when I saw it I understood.

Had you been feeling really sick before the challenge? 

No! Being the chief, I had to take the lead on things. If I had felt that bad, I would have put myself at the puzzle and had the younger guys push the ball. I didn't feel anything. I didn't feel thirsty or hungry. A couple of times in camp I was feeling lightheaded, but everyone was feeling that. I was basically probably in trouble before it even began.

Where did they take you when they hauled you off?

That's the million-dollar question. I remember they took me to this clinic-like-looking place and I was a complete jerk. It's like when they take somebody who's drunk to the emergency room and people are actually trying to help them but they are being rude. I was mad. I didn't understand why they took me out. I had applied eight times to be on this show and they're gonna take me out cause I'm thirsty? They put an IV in my arm and gave me electrolytes and I was like, "Are you people serious? Get away from it." It felt like 10 minutes, but it could have been two days. I don't trust my memory at this point.

What was it like sitting in that constant rain? It looked horrible.

That was tough. I was watching these people I have to take care of suffer, and I can't have them suffering because I need them to win challenges. Just the hypothermia I had never experienced. You're having these involuntary spasms. It sucked, in a word. It could have been 65 degrees, but it felt like 30. I've never seen my hands or feet look like that where it's like sheets of skin are going to start peeling off.

Did the rain make you regret not choosing the tarp over the blankets?

Not at all. That was a completely different strategic move. We're talking a game. I'm going to have to make some decisions like you do in chess. You sacrifice.

Did you like being the leader of the tribe?

I hated it. I absolutely hated it. My demise is a three-legged stool. You've got dehydration, malnourishment and sleep deprivation. The day I was elected chief, I couldn't sleep at all. I agonized over every decision. I have never been a person who has trouble sleeping, but for the first time in my life, I did not sleep. My brain never turned off from that first day. People who assume that role always end up getting kneecapped.

OK, so why did everyone on Galu hate Shambo so much?

I really hope you get the chance to meet this woman. She is incredible. She's like a warm blanket, she just wraps herself around you, and it's like Shambo in every pore. There's Shannon. But then the Shambo was somebody who was just like ... what kind of lunatic are you? You're losing stuff. You were in the Marines; what the heck is going on with you? I think Shannon is different than Shambo. Shambo had a penchant for rubbing you the wrong way. Shannon -- I love that woman.

Do you think you could have won the whole game?

Absolutely. That's why I was so upset. I had all the tools necessary to win this game. Even with the chief thing on my back, I was making it work. Once the merge came, the social game was my strength. Getting to that point would have been good. I'm a middle-age government bureaucrat, but brother can handle his business.

Who do you think will win now?

There's some really strong players. I know everyone thinks Russell [Hantz] is strong. I wouldn't be shocked, even with Shambo's craziness, if she ended up being the winner. People are gonna keep her around even though she's a lunatic. It could be Laura or Brett, the sleepers.

Is that really you on Twitter?

Yes, I'm Russkid. I'm still learning. But it's fun because this allows me to interact with people. I'm not gonna do MySpace, though.

Well, I'm sorry we had to see you go out like that.

Don't feel sorry for me at all. This experience has been enlightening. Last night, my wife and I talked in a way we haven't since we were dating and we've been married for 13 years now. There's always a silver lining. It's all good. So if anybody wants to know, I have no regrets.

-- Amy Kaufman (follow me on Twitter @AmyKinLA)

Photo: Jeff Probst calls medical staff as Russell Swan passes out on Thursday night's episode of "Survivor." Credit: CBS

 
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Great interview! Thanks!


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