How a Survivor is Surviving his Bout with the Coronavirus

By Cynthia Wang

After three months, two-time player Phillip “The Specialist” Sheppard bests COVID-19 and talks about his experience:
Photo credit: Phillip Sheppard on Survivor: Caramoan. Photo by Monty Brinton/CBS.

During two memorable turns on Survivor—2011’s Redemption Island, where he finished second to “Boston Rob” Mariano, and 2013’s Caramoan—former federal agent Phillip Sheppard formed his “Stealth R Us” alliance to maneuver through the game.

Phillip Sheppard

Taking a page out of his own book, Sheppard is now calling upon his inner drive and “Health R Us,” a team of doctors, family and friends, to help him battle back from the debilitating effects of the coronavirus.

“I think many people think it’s like the flu, or they won’t get it,” Sheppard says from his home in Santa Monica, California. “The truth is it’s nothing like the flu. At 62 years old, it was very scary for me, as African Americans are most likely to die or be hospitalized from COVID-19.”

Sheppard traces his ordeal back to the week of February 20th, when he met with a friend who had returned from a 10-day trip to France and Italy. Two days later, having fallen ill, he walked to the ER, which was less than four blocks from his house.

After three hours to get all the necessary bloodwork done and samples taken, he was sent home thinking he had a urinary infection but not COVID-19, despite having many symptoms.

Taking no chances, Sheppard self-quarantined, but he became sicker and sicker. For a guy who was used to sleeping like an angel, he felt fits of pain in his heart if he rolled to the left or the right, or if he attempted to sleep on his back. He also sweated so much that his bed would be soaked.

Things were not much better in the morning. “I noticed that my lungs would not allow me to take a deeper breath, and, while I could hold my breath, I could not do it for very long,” he explains. “My heart bothered me, my lungs felt tight, and fatigue set in during the shortest of activities.”

The virus, Sheppard surmises, seems to work like how a person appears to speed up at the end of solving a Rubik’s Cube—it finds a body’s weak spots and then converges on those points all at once. So, in addition to a fever of more than 100 degrees, a sore throat, and a dry cough, his joint problems were exacerbated.

But worst of all, “it impacted my heart, causing the arteries to swell, and leakage and pain for several days,” Sheppard says. “It hurt my lungs to breathe, and it caused bronchial and urinary tract infections over a 22-day-period.”

Worried he may in fact have COVID-19, Sheppard wrote to his doctor, who said the protocol in place in March did not allow him to be tested. However, Sheppard was prescribed 500 mg of azithromycin for three days. “That lasted in my system for ten days,” he says, “and it helped with my bronchial infection and cleared my left lung.”

By April 3rd, he got more clarity when he returned to the hospital. “They did an X-ray and realized that my arteries were an issue and my heart appeared larger; they have records from my Survivor days and they compared images,” Sheppard says.

A pulmonary doctor told him he had cardiomyopathy and a lung infection caused by either inflammation or disease. The doctor would need to see him again in a month, but in the meantime, he was to take prescribed antibiotics and pain meds.

Back home, Sheppard read a great deal about COVID-19 and how it affected African Americans, poring over studies in the New England Journal of Medicine and other publications. He opted to boost his daily diet with 29 different types of foods and decided to move more regardless of the pain, tips he took from The Coronavirus Prevention Handbook. “The Survivor in me said, ‘Move or die trying, eat right, stay positive, meditate. It worked, but it was extremely difficult.”

He consulted with a personal alliance for encouragement. “My sisters, Theresa and Patricia, spoke to me about meditation and staying positive,” he says, “and reminding me I survived on Survivor, as I was on EKGs both times I played and hung in there! I had so many complications with this, I was not sure, but they comforted me, as did a few other people.”

Phillip Sheppard & Son

They included his son Marcus, who shopped and did chores for his dad, while he spent time in bed, and Diane Hardy, the official whom Jeff Probst brought on the Redemption Island live reunion show to confirm that Sheppard was a former federal agent. “She called me and offered kind words, as we have known each other since the ‘80s,” he says.

A month later, on May 5th, Sheppard returned to the hospital. “The X-ray showed that I was much better,” he says. “It was easier to breathe, and I felt no pain in my heart but still some discomfort in my lungs.” The staff drew his blood for an antibody test.

Doctors got in touch with Sheppard on May 12th to let him know the blood test had come back positive—he had indeed had COVID-19. Although they do not know if he could become sick again with the virus, they advised him to continue with his safety and health precautions.

Among those precautions, for his heart health, he eats a diet low in salt and keeps his blood pressure under control. Overall, he exercises in moderation, meditates, speaks with friends and family, wears a mask when around other people and practices social distancing. “We have to own this moment. It’s what future generations will talk about, what we did,” Sheppard says.

To that end, he has also bought lunch for his doctor’s office, given the homeless masks and money to certain individuals when he can afford it, wiped down doorknobs and all metal objects in his complex, and, at home, has enjoyed cleaning up with his son.

Also, “I would encourage Americans to follow the guidelines of medical professionals,” Sheppard says, adding that he is grateful to his doctors at UCLA Medical Center.

“My recovery went incredibly well thus far, and my doctors have said it’s a good idea to let people know you can make a full recovery,” Sheppard says. “I do feel much better, and after seeing the images of people not taking precautions seriously, I thought I should share my story.”

Since being on Survivor, Sheppard has enjoyed writing novels including The Legend of Things Past, which has a plot-line involving a mysterious illness. Now he is grateful to have survived his biggest challenge yet.

“’The Specialist’ within me could do it,” he says, “but I also spoke to the creative force in the universe and related I am not ready to go, that I had things to do. I pray that I have compassion and understanding and am grateful for what I have, in love from the Mother Earth and people everywhere.”

Phillip Sheppard

Although “The Specialist” turned 62 in March, he received a special gift in May. Photo courtesy of Phillip Sheppard
Phillip Sheppard was the original Man About Town, and he did several Conversations for Neworld Review.   To read more about Phillip Sheppard’s time on Survivor, look out for 40 Seasons of Survivor: The Official Collector’s Edition, out this summer.

This article was originally published in the On Right Now blog at CynthiaWangMedia.com.


Cynthia Wang

Cynthia Wang
Pop culture writing, entertainment reporting, panda gazing, Sydney living. Veteran editor at TV Week, Who, and People. Cherub instructor always.

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