When his son became gravely ill, Deitz was removed from the game – and then the real surviving began

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Credit: Monty Brinton/CBS

Terry Deitz waited a decade to return to Survivor. In 2005’s Survivor Panama, he finished the season in third place, but he always believed that he could do better.

“I always felt like I had what it takes to win the game,” he told PEOPLE before competing on Survivor Cambodia: Second Chance, “and I’ve been waiting for ten years to go back.”

But his dream came to an abrupt end the night of day 13 when host Jeff Probst came to the camp and told Deitz that his son was ill and that he needed to return home immediately.

It was very serious. Deitz’s 17-year-old son, Danny, had an enlarged heart and needed an transplant. After more than two months in the hospital, he received a new heart.

Deitz, 56, tells PEOPLE about the scary experience and how his son is doing today.

It was such an emotional situation to watch you get pulled from the game. You must have known when Jeff Probst walked onto your beach that it wasn’t good news.
Absolutely. Whenever he shows up, it’s never good news. And so he gets me from the shelter and as I’m walking down the beach, I’m not sure what he’s going to say. I’ve got an 85-year-old mom and an 85-year-old mother-in-law, so I’m wondering if something happened to them.

And then the first thing he said was, ‘Your son, Danny.’ And I thought, ‘Oh, my God.’ He had just gotten his license; did he get in a car crash? I was so afraid that I was going to hear the word D-E-A-D. It was the worst moment of my life.

Wow. That sounds awful.
Jeff didn’t know much either because of HIPAA laws. So we were really in the dark. All we knew was that something serious had happened.

Did Danny have any previous health problems?
No. None at all. This is the kind of thing that you hear about athletes who fall down on the field and never get up. He had a type of enlarged heart: dilated cardiomyopathy. It started to present itself right after I left for Cambodia.

My wife and Danny had just eaten lunch at Panera, and they went to the doctor because Danny wasn’t feeling right. The doctors thought it was bronchitis or something else. They took an X-ray and realized that his lungs were clear but his heart was enlarged. They sent them to emergency room. It all happened so fast.

So you’re on a remote Cambodian beach when this happens. What happens next?
I knew immediately that it was time to go home. I needed to be with my family. At that moment, the game didn’t matter a bit. I just needed to go home.

Jeff and his team took over from that point. I hugged my tribemates and got on the boat. The cameras stopped rolling and Jeff handed me his phone and told me to call my wife, Trish. So we FaceTimed, but it was really halting. I got to see Trish’s face and Danny’s face, but I still didn’t know the extent of things.

We jumped on another boat, and I got my itinerary. Jeff took his hat off his head and gave it to me, and told me to take it to Danny.

How long of a trip was it to get home?
We took a boat to the mainland. Two hours in a hotel to get cleaned up, then a four-hour SUV ride to Phnom Penh. A three-hour flight to Hong Kong. I got to talk to my family one more time. And then it was 16 hours with no communication while I flew to Boston.

That must have been the longest 16 hours of your life.
[Sighs] It was bad. I had been up for, like, 24 hours straight, and I finally had a double scotch and got a couple hours sleep. I was sitting in my seat, wondering what was going on. Is he going to be awake when I get there? Is he going to be alive when I get there? It was horrible. I felt helpless.

Were you all alone?
Actually, no. Dr. Eliza, the company psychologist, was there. She came all the way to Boston with me. And then she turned right around and went back to Cambodia. Everyone involved with the show was wonderful.

And at that point, the show couldn’t have felt less important to you.
Exactly. Survivor has been such a big part of my life, but it’s nothing compared to my family. Life can turn on a dime.

How’s Danny now?
Danny is doing extremely well. We spent 79 days in the hospital, and he got a transplant. The new heart is pumping like a champ. He was at Children’s Hospital for a clinic on Tuesday, and he returns every two weeks to get a catheter in his neck.

His immune system is being squashed so that it doesn’t attack the foreign body – his new heart. But everything about the heart is working wonderfully. It’s amazing, and hopefully he’ll keep this heart in him for years.

That’s good news.
Yes, it’s a beautiful thing. But we pray for the donor and the grief that they and their family went through. We received the gift of life from that person, but we have to remember that it came at the expense of a tragedy for another family.

So are you sorry that you went on Survivor?
Well, there is a silver lining: We can raise awareness for organ donation. They talked about it on the show; we’ll do something else at the finale. So it’s a way for 15 million people to think about giving the gift of life. We also have started a fund, Danny Strong, that will raise money for research at Children’s Hospital. So it’s awesome to have a platform like this, hopefully to save lives. We can cure kids, and those who we can’t cure, we’ll get them a new heart somehow.

So was it weird to watch your brief time on Survivor, knowing what was going to happen?
It was kind of fun to watch. It wouldn’t have fun to watch if things hadn’t gone so well. But things are on the mend, and we have a good start of a long journey.

Want to hear more from Terry Deitz? Check out the audio interview below to hear his exit interview with two-time Survivor contestant Rob Cesternino!

RELATED VIDEO: Get a Tour of Survivor Host Jeff Probst’s ‘Spectacular’ Pad

Survivor: Second Chance

airs Wednesdays (8 p.m. ET) on CBS.