In 2001, more than 31 million viewers watched in horror as Survivor contestant Mike Skupin fell face-first into a campfire, burning his hands so severely that he had to be evacuated from the Australian Outback in a helicopter. It was reality TV’s first serious injury, and it became the most-watched regular episode in Survivor history.
“It took the better part of a whole year for my hands to heal,” Skupin tells PEOPLE. “It was as much pain as I could handle without passing out. I’ve never known pain like that before. But I’m completely healed. There are no scars, no sensitivity to heat or cold. It’s like it never happened.”
Now “older and wiser,” Skupin, 50, is returning to Survivor: Philippines, which premieres Wednesday on CBS. (He’s one of three former players who where medically evacuated from the game – among other recognizable players, like former Facts of Life star Lisa Whelchel.)
“I completely underestimated how badly I wanted to play the game again,” says Skupin, who estimates that he has shown his hands to “a half million” curious Survivor fans over the years. “When I hit the beach, I was like, ‘let’s do this. Let’s have a challenge.'”
One challenge Skupin doesn’t want: another serious injury. “On the first day in the Philippines, I determined that I wasn’t going to end up in the mouth of a shark, or breaking a bone, or falling in a fire,” he said. “You get bumps and bruises on Survivor; there’s no way to avoid it. But I didn’t want to get seriously injured.”
And one more thing: he’s playing to win. “I have unfinished business,” he says. “And I don’t want to leave the game until the end.”