Masters Champion Survives Tuberculosis and Ruptured Aorta, Credits CrossFit

October 28, 2020 by
Photo courtesy of CrossFit LLC.

It all started in 2017 when Eva Thornton started experiencing an “annoying niggle” in her left shoulder blade. “Nothing hectic. It was uncomfortable lying down but didn’t really worry me in everyday life or training,” said Thornton, a resident of South Africa and three-time CrossFit Games athlete.

  • A year later, the pain had worsened, but this didn’t stop her from winning the 2018 Games in the Women’s 50-54-year-old division. Still, it was time to get an MRI to see if “there was something serious going on,” she said. 
  • It took doctors a couple months and two biopsies to determine her pain was stemming from a tuberculosis infection. “We actually have a lot of TB in South Africa. The surgeon told me a big percentage of the population has been exposed to TB, but usually it can just sit dormant in your body. Normally we think about it being in the lungs, but it can happen anywhere in the body,” she said. 
  • After her diagnosis in February, 2019, Thornton was immediately put on TB medication “and that should have been the end of it.” 

But then things got worse. The medication wasn’t working as well as it should and doctors were worried her spine might collapse. So in August 2019, while in surgery to stabilize her spine, the surgeon discovered the TB abscesses had collected around her aorta. During surgery, her aorta ruptured. 

  • “I woke up in the ICU on a ventilator,” said Thornton, who went under the knife again to have a stent placed in her aorta.
Courtesy of Eva Thornton

One big thing: Thornton’s surgeon told her she wouldn’t have survived had it not been for her fitness.

  • “I didn’t crash during surgery, even when I lost two litres of blood within seconds, so certainly fitness has played a big role in me surviving this,” she said.
  • Fitness helped her not just survive TB and a ruptured aorta, but also put her in a good position to make a full recovery. “I lost eight kilograms in just 10 days of being in the hospital. I lost so much muscle mass really quickly, so if I didn’t have strength or muscle mass to start off with, my recovery would be a lot harder,” she said. 
  • Today, Thornton’s strength numbers are back to being around 90 percent of her all-time personal bests.

The big picture: Though Thornton is on the mend, she is also realistic that she may never return to competition. But she’s OK with that. 

  • “As a competitor, (I was) always thinking about the next PB and improving (my) time, or what competition (I’m) going to quality for, but an event like I went through makes you realize the true value of your fitness. That’s the lesson and it’s a really valuable one to learn. The time we spend in the gym is more than competing. It can literally save your life,” Thornton said. 

Though she hasn’t competed since 2018 and “there’s still a lot of healing to take place,” Thornton is keeping a never say never attitude. 

  • “It’s certainly not something I want to force, and I have pretty much achieved everything I wanted to achieve in sport, but having said that, I have been an athlete my whole life. I’m not really the jogger type. I only really know one way  to train,” Thornton said, laughing. “Time will tell.”

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