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“I’ll do anything to play ‘Survivor’ again,” was a popular comment from people trying to win last Spring’s “Second Chance” vote.
On a starlit night in the Cambodia wilderness, Terry Deitz learned the truth about that statement. When host Jeff Probst told him there was a medical problem with his son Danny, Terry didn’t think twice before hopping on a boat and leaving the game behind.
I spoke with Terry the morning after this episode aired and we didn’t talk about “Survivor” much at all.
Gordon Holmes: You guys took us on a roller coaster last night. Did you know Danny had any issues before you took off for Cambodia?
Terry Deitz: Not at all. The day before we were out on the astroturf throwing bombs and he was like, “I’m a little short of breath.” I’m like, “Don’t worry about it. You’re probably out of shape from lacrosse or whatever.” Two days after I left, everything in his system started breaking down. He was throwing up. Cold, they thought he had bronchitis. The last thing she got him was an echocardiogram. It’s like an ultrasound for the heart. From that they can tell what your ejection fraction is. That’s the percentage of blood coming out of your heart. We walk around with a 50-65. He had an ejection fraction of eight. The doctor comes running back into the room. He says, “Mrs. Deitz, you’re not going on vacation. I just called 911. An ambulance is coming to take your son.” He went to Hartford Hospital, they wanted him to see a specialist. They put him in an ambulance immediately and took him to Boston Children’s Hospital. They’re the best children’s hospital in the world. And thank God they did. He shouldn’t have been walking. They had doctors coming in the room just to look at him. “There’s the kid with the EF eight.” There are athletes who have enlarged hearts and fall down on the field and never get up. Fortunately my wife got him a bunch of checkups because nobody was catching it. And all of this is going on while I’m doing challenges in Cambodia.
Holmes: There’s never been anything like it on the show. Jenna Morasca left “All Stars” but that was based on her intuition. I kept thinking about your mindset on the journey home. Because from the boat you boarded at Ta Keo beach it was another boat, and a three-hour car ride, and three or four flights. It must’ve been a nightmare.
Deitz: (Laughs) I can’t thank Jeff and his team enough. Everything was set up perfectly. Dr. Eliza, the company psychologist even came with me. It was wonderful having somebody with me. As soon as we got on the boat, Jeff gave me his phone and said, “Call Trish (Terry’s wife).” And Jeff didn’t really know what was going on with Danny because of HIPAA rules. I was able to fill him in. The game is the game and it can go on by itself. My tribemates were thinking about me. Jeff was constantly in touch while he was producing the show. It was really cool. But it was small boat to big boat. I was able to Facetime with Trish. I got to see my son. I got to see my daughter. That made my heart sink anymore because I could see how bad of shape he was in. He was one step away from dying. We boated back to the mainland. I got a shower. Four hour drive to Phnom Penh in an SUV. Flight to Hong Kong, layover where I got to talk to them again. And then a sixteen-hour flight with no communication to Boston. “Survivor” had a limo waiting and the limo’d Eliza and I right to Boston Children’s Hospital. Trish and my daughter met me out there. We had a little cry, then we got strong again for Danny. And when I went up and saw him the first thing I said was, “Dan.” He’s a big strapping athlete. 6’2”, 195 pounds and he’s now lost 25 pounds. He’s got all this (expletive deleted) hooked into him and everything. I said, “Look, nobody loves you for Danny Football. Nobody loves you for Danny Lacrosse. They love you for Danny Deitz, and I love you. And I want to see you get better, grow old, have kids, and have them give you the joy that you’ve given me. And we’re going to kick ass on this thing.” And that’s what we did. Two heart procedures and two open heart procedures within a month. God bless the organ donor, because Danny’s heart is pumping like a champ.
Holmes: Damnit, Terry. I’m not supposed to get weepy during exit interviews.
Holmes: I’m a professional!
Deitz: My wife and I have had 79 days in the hospital. We’ve truly had the worst days of our lives. But, we’ve stayed solid as a team. And Danny knows this. And the love and support that we’ve gotten from you and everybody out there. It meant the world to us. It was sad watching the show last night, especially with Kass and Ciera, they have kids. It was tough on them. We’re exhaling. We’re thankful for a lot of things.
Holmes: When’s he going to be ready to go for a “Blood vs. Water” season?
Deitz: (Laughs) He’s only seventeen, so it’d be a couple of years. But even then, it’d be a reach. He’ll never be 100%. But, you never know.
Holmes: The show is going to be on for another fifteen years anyway. He can play in his thirties.
Deitz: Yeah, but the way things are with research and development…the type of rejection drugs that are not only good for his heart, but good for his system are right around the corner. Twenty five, thirty, forty years down the line when he needs another transplant, it’s probably going to be a mechanical heart where there is no rejection. Or they build a new heart out of his own stem cells.
Holmes: So, he’ll need another heart transplant in the future?
Deitz: Yes. It all comes down to the match and how well the body gets along with the new heart. And a lot of them can get along for a long time.
Holmes: My father had serious heart issues in the past year. We were in and out of the hospital for weeks at a time. And the doctors would talk about advances and say things like, “If this had happened five years ago, he wouldn’t be around.”
Deitz: You’re exactly right.
Holmes: It was heartbreaking to watch, but it helped knowing there was a happy ending.
Deitz: Wait, did your father turn out OK?
Holmes: Yes. Sorry. He’s up and about and cranky as ever.
Holmes: What’s Danny’s day-to-day like?
Deitz: He gets up in the morning, he takes his rejection drug, he’s got about eight pills he takes in the morning and in the evening. He’s got to go to Boston Children’s at least once a week. He’s got physical therapy three times a week. He can’t go to school because his immunity system is squashed. He can’t go into a petri dish of a high school. That’ll happen next semester. He’s a teenager so he’s eating like a madman. He does his workouts, and he hangs out with his football team. Whenever he goes in public he has to wear a mask. He has clinics he has to go to. He’s being tutored, he has a girlfriend, and we’re hanging out a lot. He’s actually back driving, which is scary.
Holmes: In all fairness, it’s always scary when a teenager is driving.
Deitz: (Laughs) When Jeff pulled me off, I thought it was my mom who’s 85 or my mother-in-law who’s 85. What happened to them? This is not going to be good news. And when he said, “Danny” the first thing I thought was he had a car wreck.
Holmes: You really wanted to come back after Panama. But the way you left, and the bigger picture it provided you, I feel like there can’t be too many regrets.
Deitz: I don’t spend any time projecting myself into the future of the show. It’s not worth it. It’s fun because Eliza and Jeff both said the same thing. They’re like, “You’ve been here two weeks, these are the goals you’ve talked about. You wanted to do better in the challenges and you wanted to be better socially.” I think I hung with the young guys and on the social side I felt I was involved in one of the big strategic move of getting rid of Shirin. I did those two things in two weeks. And I have no regrets about the show. It’s weird, the whole summer has been such a compelling story. It’s more exciting and more meaningful than anything “Survivor” can give.
Holmes: And where can we go to donate to the Danny Strong Foundation?
Deitz: People can go to bostonchildrens.org/dannystrong. You’ll see the whole story there. There are donations that can be done and t-shirts. It all goes to pediatric cardiomyopathy.
Any Questions? Drop me a line on Twitter: @gordonholmes