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Abi Burton Story Web

Abi Burton is back!

After Team GB's defeat in their rugby sevens Olympic bronze-medal match in July 2021, Abi, then aged 22, faced a tough time which was destined to get very much tougher.

One year on, she had been sectioned under the Mental Health Act for 26 days, spent 25 days in an induced coma, and contracted pneumonia twice.

She says she had hoped her first Olympic experience could have inspired a new generation of sevens players but it was not to be.

"You feel empty because you work towards an Olympics for so long and then you don't come away with what you want to achieve,"

Having made her England debut aged 18, uncharacteristically she started to feel "really down" and without any energy.

2019 Hamilton Sevens Day 2

Because "the first thing people go to is mental health,” she was prescribed anti-depressants.

"I was in training camp and hadn't been selected for the European tournament, which was to help us qualify for the World Cup," she says. "It was the first tournament I hadn't gone to in my four years of playing. They said to have a bit of time at home, to try and figure out what was wrong."


On 15 June 2022, she suffered her first seizure and after being assessed in hospital was discharged before her behaviour deteriorated significantly.

Her “really quite manic behaviour," she says saw her become "really aggressive towards my parents, siblings and even the dog."

Abi can’t remember that time - including two tournaments she played in. She even told her parents she didn’t want them at the London Sevens - the first time they would have been able to watch her in England in the national shirt.

"As my behaviour got a lot worse, I couldn't function properly in daily life," she says.

After more seizures, she was sectioned and admitted into a psychiatric hospital, as doctors thought she had stress-induced psychosis.

"My mum and dad had to basically just let them take me and hope they could fix me," she says. "I can't imagine how scary that was for them.

While in the psychiatric unit, her father was approached by a member of the autoimmune diseases research staff who had reviewed her notes.

"He said, 'I think your daughter has something physical, I don't think it's mental.’"

After specialist tests and consultation with experts in Oxford, she was diagnosed with autoimmune NMDA encephalitis. This is a rare condition where the body creates antibodies against receptors in the brain. These antibodies disrupt normal brain signalling and cause brain swelling, or encephalitis. The disease may start with flu-like symptoms, followed by fairly rapid development of other symptoms such as psychiatric symptoms (often hallucinations, delusions, paranoia, etc), memory problems, movement disorders and seizures.

Richard Robinson - chief medical officer at the Mid Yorkshire Hospitals NHS Trust - describes it as a "very rare" disease that presents a "major challenge for clinicians worldwide to diagnose and investigate".

"It was a battle for my dad every day because he was trying to stop me from being aggressive towards people, but he's no doctor so he didn't know how to treat me," Abi says.

"I was so poorly. I knocked a few people out of the way trying to escape the ward. I rugby tackled a few of the security guards apparently, trying to bust my way through the doors, which are magnetic and don't open normally."


Once a bed became free on the stroke and neurology unit, Abi’s family made the difficult decision to have her ventilated and put in a coma so she could receive the plasma exchanges required to clear her body of the harmful antibodies.

"They knew they couldn't treat me," she says. "I was too agitated. It had gone too far."

While she spent more than three weeks in a coma, her team-mates were competing in the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham.

Having contracted pneumonia twice while in the coma, when she came out of it Abi was unable to walk and talk, and had lost more than three stone.

Abi Burton Coma

"I don't think I realised how poorly I was when I first woke up," she says.

Discharged from hospital at the end of August last year, "I had no muscle. I thought, 'This is awful. This isn't me. I don't look like me.' It was really tough."

She also had to cope with the fact she had missed out on a home Commonwealth Games.

"I grieve for that part because it was taken away from me," she says. "For so many years, rugby was my identity and then I couldn't play."


Throughout her journey, the RFU Performance Rugby Department provided ongoing support and the medical team ensured that Abi had a coordinated rehab plan and access to the best specialists and advice available. Dr Abosede (GB) Ajayi, consultant emergency medicine specialist physician and the GB Sevens doctor, personally supported Abi in her desire to return to top level rugby.

The RFU also extended her contract which meant she didn’t have the additional stress of re-selection and could return to the team in a phased way. Charlie Hayter, the RFU’s Women’s Rugby and 7s Performance Manager, having visited her in hospital, kept in contact with Abi’s family to ensure they had the support they needed and that she could access strength and conditioning and physiotherapy close to home as she built towards a return to playing.

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Her determination and hard work saw her eventually return to the squad in Perth on the SVNS Series. "I'm very stubborn and when I was told I couldn't, I said: 'I am!'" she says.

Now back with her teammates, Abi says: “It feels incredible to be back touring with the squad. As time moved on, I wasn’t sure if I was destined to play at the top-flight again but as my dad would say ‘Burtons never give in!’ When I told them they were so happy and kept saying the hard work has paid off. Now it’s time to go and show them who Abi Burton is again. I want to be a part of the team that rights the wrongs after coming fourth in Tokyo. To go to Paris would be unbelievable and to come away with a medal would be even more special."

To view the GB Sevens squad release, visit their website here.

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