There was so much more going on with Neal Gottlieb’s medical evacuation from Survivor that we didn’t see on TV. During our one-on-one interview with Neal, he explained why the doctor didn’t discuss giving him antibiotics, revealed what medical treatments he received and told a funny story about the mistake Jeff Probst made shortly after he was pulled from the competition. Plus, he answered the question everybody has been clamoring to know. Why didn’t he give his ally, Aubry, the hidden Immunity Idol instead of taking it home? His answers might surprise you.
SheKnows: When you saw that boat approaching the beach and Jeff Probst got off, did you know your time was up?
Neil Gottlieb: Oh yeah. I knew that the executioner was there for me. There was no doubt. Earlier in the day, before going to the Immunity challenge, I packed up all my stuff. I thought I was getting pulled from the challenge. I was surprised that I got to go back to camp that day. I thought maybe they weren’t viewing it as seriously as I felt like they were. But then, it was clear that boat was for me. I wanted to go run and hide in the woods to make them drag me out of there. I figured that might not be the best way to get my second chance.
SK: What made you think they were going to pull you from the game? Was there more we didn’t see?
NG: The infection was deep. It was wide. It was disgusting. Being a fan of the show, I’ve seen Jonathan Penner go out with a knee infection. We saw James the giant gravedigger go out with an infection. They take those seriously. It’s one thing to have a big abscess on your back that’s not going anywhere. That will take a long time before it kills you. Knees, joints are different. They made it clear it was of utmost concern.
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SK: What caused that initial injury?
NG: That’s the weird thing. It came from within. On day 15 after the challenge, I suddenly, out of the blue, got what felt like a pimple on my knee. It was a little deeper. It just came from within. It really hurt then, so I requested the doctor come out. He lanced it and nothing really came out, but it just kept on growing. It was big. It was a big, friggin’ hole in my knee.
SK: When Probst came to your beach, had somebody requested medical attention at that moment, or was it truly an unexpected house call?
NG: It was an unexpected, unpleasant surprise. I had some inkling they might come, because usually after challenges you get medical attention if you want. What they didn’t show was the doctor had squeezed the one on my back with both hands. It was one of the worst experiences of my life. Imagine a grown man squeezing your back, basically tearing the flesh. Blood and pus squirted out and it looked like a Civil War battlefield. It was absolutely disgusting. It was absolutely horrible. At the challenge, when Jeff was asking me about Mount St. Neal, he also had me pull up my shirt to show him the wound on my back. I had to take the bandage off for that. I figured, “Oh, I will get medical attention after this.” They were like, “We can’t do that right now. We’ll take care of it later.” I didn’t really think about it again until the boat showed up.
SK: So you’re on the boat and out of the game. What happened next? What kind of medical treatment did you receive?
NG: The funny thing about what happened next is we started going out when Matt, the producer, turns to Jeff and says, “You didn’t tell them there’s no Tribal, did you?” Jeff said, “Oh, shit,” and jumped back in the water and had to go back. That scene was actually spliced together from two different moments. Then they brought me around the corner to a bigger boat to the mainland. From there it was about a four-hour drive to the hospital. I found myself, around midnight, laying there looking at the ceiling in a Cambodian hospital as a man digs into my knee and scrapes out all the dead, infected flesh. But it was fine. They had me on IVs on and off for two days. On the third day, they brought me to a nice hotel. That next morning I ran four miles on a treadmill. The morning after that I ran five miles on the treadmill. I was fine. I wasn’t in pain. I wasn’t immobilized. I was fine. I was ready to win that thing.
SK: What made the difference between your injury and the one we saw with Aubry? The doctor opted to give her antibiotics for her infection, so why wasn’t that an option for you?
NG: They actually did have me on antibiotics. I can’t remember if it was day 15 or day 16, but they clearly didn’t do the job. Aubry’s infection was just in the middle of her leg. It wasn’t by a joint. Same thing with the one on my back. It was big, disgusting and had dead, black flesh, but they weren’t going to pull me for that one. It was the fact that it was so deep and right by the knee joint that they were concerned.
SK: A lot of viewers reacted to how nasty it was to watch the close-up shots of your injuries. What was it like for you to see it on TV?
NG: It was fun. I lived through it. It was pretty gross, but I don’t really get grossed out by things. I appreciate that it was disgusting, but it doesn’t stir any gut-wrenching feelings for me or anything like that. It was actually kind of cool. Somebody took a photo of my back right before it got cleaned out. I had only gotten one quick view of that picture about a year ago, so it was kind of neat to see that as disgusting as it was.
SK: Now we need to get to the question I’m sure you’ve been asked about a billion times already.
NG: Let me guess! The Idol!
SK: How did you know that was coming?
SK: What happened there? Why didn’t you give it to Aubry? Did you forget about giving away in the moment of being removed from the competition, or was it because you wanted to have a souvenir?
NG: No, I didn’t forget. I ultimately decided to have a family heirloom. I was thoroughly convinced that I was going home. Aubry and I had our romantic sunset talk on the beach about Idols and our future together. At one point in that conversation she said something about being willing to slit my throat. Knowing there was a good chance I was getting pulled the next day, it just wasn’t what I wanted to hear. That put me off a little bit. By day 19, it was pretty clear that Aubry was the one who was going home. So my death gave her life. I kind of felt like I didn’t owe her anything. Now it seems so silly, but at the time it was the one physical thing of this game, this experience that I love so much, that I could hold on to. I could clench on to this one little piece of this dream that was otherwise being stripped right away from me. So, that’s what I decided. But what you didn’t see is that I didn’t not give her the Idol as far as other people saw. I gave her my sports coat on the way out, and I reached into my pocket and grabbed something that I put into that pocket. There might have been the threat of an Idol that I gave her, but sometimes the threat of something can be worse than the thing itself. I didn’t necessarily completely screw her. Or maybe I did. Maybe I put a target on her back with nothing to back it up with.
SK: What was the item you put into the pocket?
NG: I had stuff to make fake Idols. There was stuff I cut off the sign as we were abandoning the old camp. The funny thing about my bulge being discussed on national television, is that the Idol was never in that pocket for a second throughout the entire game. That bulge was some cloth and shells. It wasn’t an Idol, and it was never an Idol.
SK: With the anticipation that you were going to be pulled from the game, had you told Aubry prior to leaving that you would give her the Idol, or was she truly surprised you left the game with it in your possession?
NG: It’s funny. We never actually said anything as far as I remember. I just asked her if she wanted stuff to make an Idol with and I gave her my coat. I don’t think we ever said anything about it. I’m sure she was like, “What the f*** just happened? That son of a bitch left the game and didn’t give it to me? What the hell is wrong with him?”
SK: If you could do it over again, would you make the same decision to take the Idol home with you instead of giving it to Aubry?
NG: I regretted it as soon as the boat started pulling away. It was like, “What did I just do? Why didn’t I give her this stinking thing?”
SK: Where is that Idol sitting at this very moment?
NG: I just picked it up from my desk and put it in my hand. I brought it into work today so my employees could see it. It’s been stashed away on my boat for the last year. It’s nice for it to see the light of day. Finally.
SK: Had you not been medically removed from the game and Tribal Council would have taken place, who was going to get voted off?
NG: I think there was a very good chance that Aubry would’ve gone home that night.
SK: Would you have played your Idol?
NG: I don’t know. When you do the math and look at the numbers, it seemed unlikely they were going to split the votes four and three knowing we have four votes. It’s pretty unlikely they’re going to put the vote on me because they feared I had an Idol. They were probably going to put the vote on Aubry. I probably would’ve held on to it. I wasn’t playing to finish in the top 10. I was playing to win.
SK: Earlier you said you and Aubry had a romantic chat on the beach. Is there a romance between the two of you?
NG: No. No. No. Aubry and I each have partners that we love dearly. We just had a very special relationship in the game. We had a lot of respect for each other. We had a lot of fun out there. She’s an entirely capable person. She didn’t know all that much necessarily about finding food out there, but she was such an eager learner. Debbie called me the truffle pig because I was so good at finding food. I probably got 75 percent of our food most days. She called Aubry the truffle piglet. They were game. They were willing to go out there and learn to find food themselves. I had an infection on my leg on the side they wanted me to keep dry earlier on, so Aubry and I would go climb on the rocks, I’d point things out and she’d dive in and go get it. She’s great. We just had a really special friendship out there.
SK: Being a fan, how did you get on the show?
NG: It’s funny. When the show started, I was a cubicle dweller and I just wasn’t thrilled with who I was. I went on this journey of going into the Peace Corps and starting a business, becoming confident and not getting bad haircuts. I kept on watching the show and one day I felt like, “I think I can get on this thing.” Then, the craziest thing happened. I went out on an OKCupid date with somebody who used to work for the show; at the time she still did. We ended up becoming really good friends and she connected me with casting. That was my in as far as making sure they gave my video a good look. It took applying twice, but I got on. I had my dream come true. Then, I discovered the dream wasn’t to get on Survivor. The dream was to win it. That’s still the dream, and I believe I will make that happen someday.