Environmental attorney Russell Swan, 42, was the second person to leave Survivor: Samoa for medical reasons. The Glenside, Penn., resident talked with PEOPLE about the scare, the depression that accompanied being forced out of a show he’d applied for eight times and how ultimately reality TV strengthened his marriage and reaffirmed his life. –Carrie Bell
Walk us through what happened at the challenge.I felt absolutely nothing out of the ordinary. The sun was shining. I didn’t feel hungry, thirsty or tired. I was like, “Let’s kick Foa Foa’s butt. Jeff stop talking and start this.” That’s where I depart from reality. My memory of what happened and what I saw on TV are two completely different things. I thought we were pushing the ball and damn that ball was heavy. When we finally got to the puzzle station, I remember stumbling around but I thought it was because of the blindfold. I heard Laura tell me to lift my side up and I thought I hit myself on the chin and knocked myself to the ground. I heard Jeff say stop and I figured they were going to check the cut but then the blood pressure cuff came out. I was like, “What is this all about, ? I’m all right.” Ten minutes later they decided to take me out and I was pissed. I thought they were taking me out just because I was thirsty.
And in reality?Fast forward to the night of the show and I see I was stumbling around dead to the world, hanging on the puzzle, passing out. When they sat me up, my eyes go like I left my body. My wife just lost it and I apologized. I had no idea that’s what happened. It was the freakiest thing I’ve ever experienced. It’s like my brain filled itself with memories that don’t exist. Like Total Recall. Seeing it, I finally understood why Jeff said it was his scariest moment and why they took me out of the game.
What was the official diagnosis and what kind of treatment did you receive?I’m so mistrusting of my memory but I remember getting loaded into a van and going to a clinic. There were IVs and blood draws. There was talk about electrolytes and heart attack. I was hearing none of it. I was completely belligerent trying to figure out why I was in Ponderosa with the rest of the losers. My memory tells me I was completely fine, but I could have been in a coma.
Did it have anything to do with the horrible conditions and your non-stop work ethic?That had everything to do with it. My ultimate demise was the three-legged stool of dehydration, lack of nourishment and sheer exhaustion brought on by being the chief. I always felt like I had to keep going and take care of or I would be vulnerable. I was always agonizing and questioning every decision. It was the first time I had dealt with being an insomniac and I didn’t wear it well.
You took the call to yank you from the game pretty hard. There were tears.I was devastated. There was a split second where I hoped that I would die. It was so painful. I felt like an utter failure. I didn’t know I had that fallen warrior, ego, win-or-die thing in me. But I dialed it back. I was like, “Russell, this is a game, man. You have bigger responsibilities waiting for you at home.”
Do you feel like a different person after Survivor?When I first got back, I had no regrets and was glad I did it. But watching it last night took it from a neat thing to a life-affirming activity. When my wife freaked out last night, we had the kind of conversation we hadn’t had since we were dating and we’ve been married for 13 years. I went to do a reality TV show and it actually helped my marriage. How many can say that? This morning , I had an email from a 13-year-old kid telling me how inspiring my passion to continue was to him. I went to win a check for a million dollars and it became the best thing that could happen to me, which is to have a positive impact on . In failure, I have been blessed with victory and positivity and I will never be the same.
And you have one heck of a motivational story to tell your 6-year-old daughter.When she comes home and says, “I can’t do math problems. This is gonna kill me,” l can assure her without a shadow of a doubt that it won’t. “Let me tell you a story, homegirl.” Monty Brinton/CBS