September 21, 2021

Neurosurgery resident David Voce competes on new season of “Survivor”

Stamina and focus are key to neurosurgery; how much will they help him on the island?

David Voce competes on SURVIVOR, when the Emmy Award-winning series returns for its 41st season, with a special 2-hour premiere, Wednesday, Sept. 22 (8:00-10 PM, ET/PT) on the CBS Television Network. Photo: Robert Voets/CBS Entertainment 2021 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

VUMC resident David Voce in Fiji  where “Survivor” was taped. Photo by Robert Voets/CBS Entertainment

Neurosurgeons need stamina and laser focus to operate on the brain, the most complex organ in the human body. They must also be able to succinctly communicate with colleagues in the operating room as well as family members who are in the midst of an emotional situation.

So, it’s no surprise that David Voce, MD, in his eighth year of neurosurgery residency at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, brought many of those same attributes to the Mamanuca islands in Fiji where he recently competed in the CBS reality series, “Survivor.”

His eye, and that of the 17 other contestants, is on the grand prize of $1 million and the title of “Sole Survivor.”

“I realized that although the outdoor survival aspect is a huge component of the show, it’s really a game about social politics.”

The Highland, California, native, 35, is prohibited by CBS from discussing the outcome of the 41st season of the show, which begins with a two-hour premiere on Wednesday, Sept. 22, at 7 p.m. CDT.

Voce, who goes by his last name, remembers watching “Survivor” with his family, particularly his father, who died of a brain tumor when Voce was a child. He remembers the show as “a cool outdoor adventure.”

Life got busy, but he started watching it again a few years ago.

Voce knew that physical challenges are an important part of being successful on “Survivor,” but it was the human interaction and competition that most interested him. Robert Voets/CBS Entertainment

“I realized that although the outdoor survival aspect is a huge component of the show, it’s really a game about social politics,” he said. “What makes people tick? What makes them angry? What defuses a situation, and how do you manipulate people to get yourself further in the game? That’s what kind of drew me in. It’s human nature. I got addicted to it (the show), watched a few seasons, and then had this adrenaline rush that I wanted to do this.”

The premise of  “Survivor” is 16 or more strangers, split between two or more “tribes” (this year there are three: Luvu, Ua, and Voce’s tribe, Yase), are sequestered in a remote tropical location and are forced to live off the land with meager supplies for about a month. Frequent physical and mental challenges are used to pit the teams against each other for rewards, usually food or luxuries, or for “immunity,” forcing the tribe to attend “Tribal Council” where they must vote off a teammate.

“My father died of a brain tumor when I was a kid, and that kind of provided me with the impetus to go into medicine. I came from a family who values hard work and work ethic.”

Halfway through the game, survivors from each tribe come together to live as one, called “the merge.” At this point, it’s an individual competition. Most of the players voted out after the merge form the game’s jury, and once the group gets down to two or three contestants, a Final Tribal Council is held where the remaining players plead their case to the jury members. The jury then determines which contestant will be named the “Sole Survivor” and win the $1 million.

Voce and the other contestants, who include a 50-year-old rancher, an ex-NFL player, a cyber security analyst, grocery clerk and a stay-at-home mom, had to quarantine for 15 days in Fiji when they arrived in compliance with their government regulations about COVID.

Voce said he believes his background, his personality and his career choice prepared him for competing on the show, and he described that in his 3-minute audition video.

“My father died of a brain tumor when I was a kid, and that kind of provided me with the impetus to go into medicine. I came from a family who values hard work and work ethic. There was no pressure to do what the world considers great,” he said. “I had no pressure to go into medicine, but I wanted to try to see if I could make it work. So, my story is one of tragedy, but there was a drive to pursue neurosurgery based on that,” he said.

This may be a more familiar view of Voce for his co-workers at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

Voce said his ability to work under pressure as a neurosurgeon helped him prepare for life on the island. He completed the seven-year residency in neurosurgery last year, and is now finishing the first of an additional two years of research.

“Neurosurgery residents work insane hours. Working under pressure and stress, being able to control my emotions in a high-pressure situation, being cool, calm and collected when I’m in the OR, that’s exactly what you want when you’re out on the island,” he said.

“Medicine, especially surgery, is about being able to interact with people in all kinds of highly emotional, high-pressure situations – and being able to be efficient, being able to convey confidence, being able to earn trust, that’s what I do on a daily basis as a neurosurgery resident. And very much on the island, that’s what you’re going to be pushed to do from the second you hit the beach.”

“Survivor” promotional material says that Voce “prides himself on his bluntness, with a tongue as sharp as his scalpel.”

He laughed when asked if that’s accurate. “People can tell when you’re not being truthful. Being blunt is an asset in terms of it can be refreshing just to have it said how it is,” he said. “At the same time, knowing how to turn it down is super important. Going into the “Survivor” experience, knowing I have the tendency to be blunt, and knowing that blunt is good, I also had to be sure to mitigate that at the right time. That’s incredibly important.”

Filming began in late March, but Voce was originally supposed to film in March 2020.

“I was literally ready to fly off to Fiji last year, then COVID happened and shut everything down,” he said. “When I got a call from Survivor that production was back on, to begin March 2021, I really thought there was almost a 0% chance I was going to be able to go.

But he wasn’t the first VUMC resident to appear on a reality show.

In 2006, Travis Stork, MD, an emergency medicine resident at VUMC at the time, was the bachelor searching for love on the eighth season of the popular reality dating show, “The Bachelor.” He then went on to host the TV talk show, “The Doctors” from 2008 to 2020.

Lola Chambless, MD, associate professor of Neurological Surgery and program director, said that she turned to Kyla Terhune, MD, associate professor of Surgery, vice president for Educational Affairs and associate dean for Graduate Medical Education, to help determine how to grant Voce’s request. She and Terhune were both residents at the time Stork was on “The Bachelor.”

“It was immediately apparent that this was a lifetime dream of his, and I had the opportunity to help him experience something that was incredibly meaningful to him,” Chambless said. “As a program director, part of my job is to help young neurosurgeons in both personal and professional development, and it is a joy to help them achieve happiness in their lives, whether that means landing a great job as an attending, raising a young family, or having a once-in-a-lifetime experience like this.”

Terhune notes that Voce still will be required to make up missed training time and demonstrate the necessary competency prior to completion, as the primary mission for Voce and for VUMC is that he is appropriately prepared to care for his future patients. However, she says she’s glad being able to participate in the show worked out for him.

Chambless said she is hosting a “watch party” for residents so they can view the premiere.

“Survivor” premiered in 2000 and has aired a spring and a fall season each year until fall 2020 when production halted due to COVID. Jeff Probst serves as both host and executive producer.

Editor’s note/update:

The Yase tribe voted Voce off the island on the second episode of this season’s “Survivor,” which aired Wednesday, Sept. 29. He was the third person voted off the series, which continues on Wednesday nights on CBS.