A physician’s journey from Survivor to Shark Tank to quarantine

I’m my breaking point! Frustrated, exhausted, caffeine-deprived, and surrounded by people who don’t listen to me, I’m not trained for this, and I am ready to tag out.  OK, granted, it is only day two of distance learning for my third grader and kindergartener.  However, this could also describe my first two days as a castaway on Survivor island.

It’s been about nine years since I was chosen to appear on Survivor, the hit reality show that involved 18 castaways vying for $1 million if they could stick it out to become the last contestant to be voted off the island.   How did this otherwise responsible physician end up there, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, with 17 other strangers determined to vote me out?  Pull up a chair or an island shrub, and I’ll reveal all.

It all started with waxing of one’s bikini area. Remember when Steve Carell gets waxed in The 40 Year Old Virgin? The government should use that technique in place of waterboarding political prisoners. The men would give up secrets after the first 15 seconds! As an anesthesiologist, I suspected there was a better way to prevent the pain BEFORE the procedure!  I felt I could create a product that numbed the skin before painful beauty procedures.  And just like that, BareEASE was created.

Friends suggested I try out for Shark Tank, still a very new show at the time, on which entrepreneurs pitched their products to the business expert “Sharks” in hopes of gaining funding and business guidance. They were not at the time casting for Shark Tank, but they were casting for Survivor.  I decided to go for it.

Still, in the surgical scrubs straight from the OR, I stood in front of the casting director for Survivor, telling her that I wanted to be selected as a castaway.  Two days later, I was standing on the CBS lot, in front of what felt like a firing squad of TV executives, Jeff Probst (the show host), and Mark Burnett, the producer who also produced Shark Tank. I ended up being chosen to join the cast of Survivor Season 23 South Pacific. I was excited and nervous.

Two days into my time on Survivor island, I was ready to leave. I was exhausted from sleep deprivation. Sleeping on the beach with your same clothes is like being a surgical intern on-call with no one to whom to sign out.  Or for any parents of a newborn out there, having to deal with the resulting sleepless nights and days.

My fellow castmates were mean, and I definitely felt like I didn’t belong. At the time, I had earned the highest number of votes cast against a female contestant in any one season. The producers told me that if I quit the game, I would still not be going home.  So at that point, I leaned into my situation and planned the best game I could with the cards I was dealt with.

Spoiler: I don’t win the million dollars. My torch was snuffed on day 32 (of 39), and I finished seventh in the season.  On the positive side, I earned my spot on the jury and created incredible memories and friendships.

Fast forward a year. I was a new mom and continued to manage BareEASE and do anesthesia. I was beyond Survivor exhausted. On Survivor, there’s an endpoint: 39 days max.  Parenthood is indefinite! I needed a break. I needed a change of atmosphere. I needed to apply to Shark Tank.

That year there were 70,000 applications and only 1,300 segments filmed. Only a fraction of those made it on air.  I was one of the lucky ones who made it through each of these hurdles. My segment aired on October 18, 2013.

Spoiler:  I didn’t land a deal with one of the five TV sharks, and I did my best to maintain my composure while Shark Barbara gave me a verbal lashing.

My cloud’s silver lining: As it turns out, you can strike out on Shark Tank and still end up hitting a home run. Once the segment aired, over three-dozen investors reached out to partner with my business. Eventually, I partnered with a strategic investor who would assume the logistics and operations of the business. I finally was able to pass the baton and have time for the birth of my second child.

Distance learning: My children are now in kindergarten and third grade. Our school makes use of distance learning to keep everyone safe. Was Survivor island more challenging than my current quarantine island? You be the judge. On quarantine island, my children (and husband, who is also working) are the only ones I’m talking to in person.  Which is not to say that they’re actually listening to me.  Unless you count leaving for work, there is no escape from my children or responsibilities. Every day feels like Groundhog Day, the Bill Murray movie in which his character relives every day over and over again. I felt ready to tap out after a month with what I call PTSD (Parental Traumatic Stress Disorder).

As autumn approaches and the pandemic continues, we are all hoping for a vaccine by the end of the year.  The skeptic in me fears there may not be a vaccine ready, or if it is, will it be safe? The optimist reminds me to be hopeful and trust the scientific community in which I was educated and work.  And I hope we can resume the lives and routines familiar to us only six months ago.

Until then, friends, family, and fellow colleagues: Please stay safe.  And may you continue to thrive on whatever island or life adventure on which you find yourself.

Edna Ma is an anesthesiologist. She is the author of Travel, Learn and See Your Friends and can be reached at Twitter @ednamamd, Facebook, and Instagram.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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