- Great Britain Olympian spent 2½ months in hospital, was wrongly sectioned and had to relearn to walk and talk, after her immune system attacked her brain
- But she will return to competitive action in the Tradition HKFC 10s, which makes its own comeback in its old slot before the Hong Kong Sevens
Rugby Olympian Abi Burton doesn’t remember much that happened during the summer of 2022, when a potentially fatal brain disease left her in a coma for 25 days.
Yet remarkably, the English sevens star is on her way to play in next week’s Tradition HKFC 10s less than a year after she was struck down with autoimmune encephalitis. She spent 2½ months in hospital, lost 19kg in weight, and was left having to learn to walk and talk again after suffering seizures and becoming violent.
Initially misdiagnosed as having a mental breakdown, the 22-year-old was also wrongly sectioned for 26 days in a psychiatric hospital when her condition made her increasingly volatile.
The disorder Burton suffered from occurs when the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks the brain, and can be wrongly confused with mental illness.
Her condition, which began last May and caused her brain to swell, did not improve until a member of staff brought forward the disease as a possible cause, weeks after she was sectioned.
“When I was in the coma, I had pneumonia twice,” said Burton, who has no memory of last May to August. “It was horrible for my family not knowing how I would be when I woke up.”
The England international will play her first competitive matches since her illness next week when she turns out for RKS Legal Samurai Warriors in the inaugural HKFC 10s women’s tournament.
And having last year missed both the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham and the Rugby World Cup Sevens in Cape Town, the England international is targeting gold at the Paris Olympics in 2024.
“I am still on the road to recovery, with the aim to play international rugby again this year,” she said on Instagram. “I just can’t wait until we get the opportunity at the next Olympics – especially after all this.
“My first home Commonwealth Games was taken away from me, my first World Cup taken away from me. Long term, I want us to go and win gold in Paris.”
Burton isn’t the only star coming to the 10s with the Samurai squad. Some of the biggest names in women’s rugby will be on the sidelines, coaching.
Rochelle Clark, one of the most decorated English players of all time with 137 caps, and 115-cap teammate Tamara Taylor will guide Burton’s team over the two days.
Going head-to-head with them is their fellow World Cup winner Heather Fisher, also a Rio Olympian, who will be in Ashbury Tropics’ coaching team.
The organisers said the England trio’s involvement reflected the calibre of the new women’s competition, which also includes Tokyo Sankyu Phoenix, FindRugbyNow and hosts HKFC Natixis Ice, the Hong Kong Premier League champions.
“As a club, we are delighted to see that Hong Kong Football Club can still attract the biggest names in sport,” Neil Jensen, the club’s chairman, said.
“We are really looking forward to seeing the return of the Tradition HKFC 10s to the club and to once again present this exciting precursor to the Sevens which started over three decades ago.
“We’re particularly pleased to see the introduction of a women’s competition, which is an important milestone for the tournament and something we have been working towards for a number of years.
“We look forward to seeing a new dimension to the world’s best 10s out on pitch.”