Getting your torch snuffed on CBS' Survivor: Fiji (Thursdays at 9 pm/ET) is always tough to take, but having to leave the island because of a medical emergency is truly the worst way to go home, as Gary Stritesky learned last week. Dubbed "Papa Smurf" by the Moto crew, the lovable 55-year-old was plagued with dizziness and shortness of breath for days before he finally gave into the advice of the medical team and said goodbye to the beach and hello to the hospital. TVGuide.com caught up with the bus driver/carpenter to find out what exactly the problem was.
TVGuide.com: How are you feeling?
Gary Stritesky: Good. We've gotten back in the groove here, everything's going good.
TVGuide.com: They patched you all up?
Gary: Yeah, it was more that I had them bug-bite deals....
TVGuide.com: What were those bugs?
Gary: Looking back at it, I think we had a problem with ants on the deck where we were sleeping, and they might have been fire ants. The wife looked it up on the Internet, and I totally had classic symptoms of fire-ant bites. They can cause a shortness of breath and all the symptoms I had. If you don't treat it, sometimes you can have an allergic reaction, and you end up dying, so it was good that we got it taken care of.
TVGuide.com: How come you had thousands of bites, and it didn't look like anybody else had so many?
Gary: I think the reason is probably that I was sleeping on the outside, because I've got a bit of a snoring problem, and I didn't want to be rumbling the whole place. [Laughs] So, I kind of tried to stay to the outside, and [the ants] just attacked me. They had a heyday.
TVGuide.com: Did your fall on the slip-and-slide challenge contribute to your physical woes?
Gary: No. I think it rattled my cage a little bit, but I'm kind of a tough old bohunk, and I probably rattled the ground when I hit my head on it. [Laughs] I can take a pretty good bounce.
TVGuide.com: Any regrets about leaving?
Gary: Ohhh, it was the hardest thing I had to do, but I just could absolutely not function. From the time when the medics first came out, when I fell on the slip-and-slide, there was about a three- to four-day difference in there, but the cutting and editing [made it] seem like it was almost instantaneous. I knew something was going on because I had the bites starting on my ankles and then in about two days, they went all the way up to my hips. I looked like a goalie in a dart game who didn't wear padding. When it got to the arms, the dizziness got so bad.
TVGuide.com: Right, and it's not like you're eating and drinking.
Gary: Right, yeah. They drew blood and I wasn't dehydrated — everything was cool there, and the heart was good and the blood pressure was good. It was just an allergic reaction to them stinking bites.
TVGuide.com: Wow. That's something you simply can't prepare for.
Gary: No, I've never had issues with that. I've never been allergic to any kind of medicine, so you don't think about that. I know some people, they run around with that little....
Gary: Yeah, because they're afraid of being [exposed to an allergen], and I always thought, "Oh, what a hassle that would be." But I guess once you go through that shock, you think, "Wow, I'd run around with one, too!"
TVGuide.com: Well, I think it's better that you took the safer route and left when you did.
Gary: Yeah, it got taken care of, but once you go off the island, you're done. And that's only fair, because otherwise people would be going off just for nothing. I lugged it for about three and a half days, and by the fourth day, it was to the point where I couldn't function. I couldn't even sit up.
TVGuide.com: Did you heal pretty quickly after you left the island?
Gary: I was in the hospital for about two days, where I got about four or five IVs, and then when I finally got the antitoxin stuff, it took a while. It was about a week before my head actually quit spinning.
TVGuide.com: So if you had stayed, you really wouldn't have been good at the game.
Gary: I would have been gone, because I couldn't help nobody on the challenge.
TVGuide.com: I still think it was a bit harsh seeing Lisi say she had to, like, "babysit" you.
Gary: Yeah, if there is karma out there... I'm a firm believer that life is just a big, round table and you put food on it. If you put crap on it, you better be ready to eat it, because it's going to come back. It's just a matter of time. You know, we weren't on the beach maybe a few hours when she comes running up, "Papa Smurf, we have to form an alliance." I said, "We don't even have teams, how can we do that?" She was sucking up to everybody right from the get-go, so those five, they're not going to be real strong for real long. [Laughs]
TVGuide.com: What did you think when you saw Moto's decision to stay in the cushy place and give up immunity?
Gary: Not a good move. I mean, you've got the advantage from the get-go, you've won just about every challenge, so go to a beach where you don't have quite the luxuries. You're going to keep winning if you're still strong and together. But now you've lost two and you've voted out one of your stronger ones, Liliana, which was another really dumb move — two dumb moves in one motion — so what are you going to do now? Do you want someone like Lisi, who doesn't contribute that much physically and, if you notice, put her hand up real quick to get out of the challenges, or do you want someone like Liliana, who will go out there and break her back for you?
TVGuide.com: Why did you want to go on the show? Were you a fan?
Gary: I have watched it since day one, [the season with] Richard Hatch. I have a daughter who applied twice, and she made it out to California here for the semifinals. She was No. 13 when they picked eight out of 13 for Africa, so she almost went there and she kind of got into it, and I thought, "Well, we've got to represent the old buggers here." I can still physically go with most of them.
TVGuide.com: Exactly. How did you prepare for the game?
Gary: My daughter has a good friend who's a trainer, and I went with him a couple of times a week before I went on there, because at that time of the year, we're not out building, so you get a little lazy, you pack on a few pounds.
TVGuide.com: Where did the "Papa Smurf" nickname come from? Is that something you came in with?
Gary: No, when they dropped all 19 of us off, we were standing there probably five minutes when Boo comes up to me and says, "I'm going to call you Papa Smurf." [Laughs] I said, "All right, I can live with that." I've been called a lot worse. [Laughs] Most of those people can associate with Papa Smurf, because that was the "in" toy in the '80s. I've got four kids, and we had Smurfs around our place, Smurfettes, Smurf cups... everything.
TVGuide.com: What's next for you? What's on your agenda?
Gary: I'm going back to driving the bus, and I'm going to be looking at the possibility of getting a Harley this spring.... The wife and I are going to go out traveling and spend some time with my grandkids.
Read on for our Q&A with Survivor: Fiji's Liliana.
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