Abi Burton: “I nearly died” – the Olympian battling to recover from an induced coma after being mistakenly sectioned

After failing to win a medal at the Tokyo Olympics, Abi Burton felt “truly, really lost” when she got back to England.

“That was a really trying period,” she says of the months that followed Team GB’s failure in their rugby sevens bronze-medal match in July 2021.

Burton, a 22-year-old, was unaware of how difficult life would soon become.

One year on from losing to Fiji, she was wrongfully sectioned for 26 days, spent 25 days in an induced coma, and caught pneumonia twice.

Her tale is told here.

“I couldn’t carry out my daily activities correctly,”
Burton felt she and her teammates would have motivated a new generation of sevens players as she reflected on her first Olympic experience. It was not enough.

She tells BBC Sport’s Jo Currie, “You feel hollow because you strive for an Olympics for so long and then you don’t walk away with what you want to achieve.

Burton’s life had been defined by rugby, but she suddenly received a “fresh viewpoint”.

Burton, who made her England debut at the age of 18, said that she first became unmotivated and felt “very sad” before noticing a shift in her behavior.

Abi Burton
Danny, Burton’s father, and his brothers Joe and Oli are all rugby league players.
She recalls that because “mental health is the first place people go,” she was given antidepressants.

I wasn’t chosen for the European tournament, which was meant to help us qualify for the World Cup, she recalls, adding that she was in training camp. Throughout my four years of playing, it was the first competition I missed.

They advised me to spend some time at home trying to diagnose the problem.

Later, on June 15, 2022, while seated at the dinner table with her mother, she experienced her first fitting seizure.

It was her first seizure and “may also be the last,” thus after being evaluated in the hospital, she was released.

Yet she would behave very differently.

I changed from being a shy, inattentive person to becoming rather manic, she claims. When it came to my parents, siblings, and even the dog, I was really hostile.

Burton doesn’t recall that time in her life, not even the two tournaments she participated in. Even though it would have been their first opportunity to see her in England wearing the national jersey, she told her parents she did not want them at the London Sevens.

I was unable to carry out my everyday responsibilities since my behavior grew significantly worse, she claims.

Burton says physicians believed she had stress-induced psychosis when she was sectioned following several seizures.

She explains, “My parents simply had to let them take me and hope they could repair me. “I can’t even fathom how frightening that was for them.”

I rugby tackled some of the security personnel.
The father and Abi Burton
Burton twice developed pneumonia while in an induced coma.
Burton stayed at Fieldhead, a psychiatric hospital in Wakefield, for 26 days, during which time her behavior worsened.

I was essentially receiving treatment for psychosis, she claims. “They didn’t test me for an autoimmune disease, but they also didn’t rule it out.”

Burton’s behavior and seizures did not stop until a member of the team conducting research on autoimmune disorders approached her father after reading her writings.

He approached my father and stated, “I don’t think your daughter has a mental problem; I think she has something bodily.”

Burton was identified as having autoimmune encephalitis after tests, which happens when the body’s immune system erroneously targets the brain.

It is a “extremely unusual” illness that “presents a tremendous challenge for clinicians worldwide to diagnose and research,” according to Richard Robinson, chief medical officer at the Mid Yorkshire Hospitals NHS Trust.

Initially a patient in the acute evaluation ward due to a lack of beds in the stroke and neurology unit after Burton’s diagnosis, she was later transferred to a different hospital.

Every day was a struggle for my father since he tried to stop me from acting aggressively against people, but since he isn’t a doctor, he had no idea how to handle the situation, she claims.

“I felt really bad. In my attempt to leave the ward, I knocked a few individuals aside. I rugby tackled a number of the security personnel reportedly, trying to bust my way through the doors, which are magnetic and don’t open regularly.”

Burton’s family took the painful choice to have her placed in a coma once a bed on the stroke and neurology ward became available so she could undergo plasma exchanges.

She claims, “They knew they couldn’t treat me. “I was too agitated, it had gone too far.”

Burton lay in a coma for more than three weeks while her teammates competed in the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham.

Abi Burton is a patient.
Abi Burton had to relearn how to walk and communicate after spending almost four weeks in a coma.
‘This isn’t me’
Burton dropped more than three stone, lost the ability to walk and talk, and developed pneumonia twice while she was in the coma.

When she first woke up, “I don’t think I realized how badly I was, and I had no desire to ask,” she claims.

I lacked muscle. I felt like this was terrible. Not I, this. I don’t resemble me. It was incredibly difficult.

In addition to the obvious physical difficulties, Burton also had to deal with the disappointment of missing out on a home Commonwealth Games.

She explains, “I weep for that aspect since it was taken from me. “Rugby was my identity for so many years, and then I was unable to play.”

Burton, though, was unwilling to give up. Last month, she rejoined her teammates in training after finishing a tough program ordered by Team GB’s doctor.

She continues, “I’m pretty obstinate and I like to do things a specific way. “When I was told I couldn’t, I said: ‘I am!'”

Next, what?
On August 31st of last year, Abi Burton and the nurses who cared for her were eventually released from the hospital.
Burton has goals for both on and off the rugby field after a hectic 2022.

She plans to compete in the World Sevens Series again this season before attending the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris to atone for Tokyo’s failure.

The goal for the upcoming season is an Olympic medal, and she specifies that she wants it to be a gold one.

She also wants to raise awareness about autoimmune encephalitis in the hope no-one else has to go through what she has.

She says, “I would be devastated if I could never play rugby again, but if I can bring awareness to change the protocols in the NHS, then I’d be pleased with that.

If I hadn’t received a diagnosis, I might not have survived. It’s hard to comprehend what the conclusion could have been. Several other things may have happened.

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