20-year-old's dreams tragically wrecked by rare condition that forced surgeons to slice her arms open
When you're young, it seems like the world is your oyster - and that's exactly how it felt for university rowing captain Alice Vodden, 20, from Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, UK.
Alice, who was aiming for gold at the prestigious Henley Royal Regatta, had her dreams dashed after being told by doctors that she had a rare syndrome, striking only 10 in a million people.
She began experiencing excruciating pain in her forearms while out on the water captaining Warwick University women’s first team in January 2018 - which was where her ordeal began. Doctors at first told her that her issues were likely resulting from tendonitis – a swelling of the tendons. As a result Alice continued to train hard, desperate to make it to the rowing event in Henley.
The symptoms in her lower arms had first began to rear their ugly head in October 2017, when Alice began to notice an unusual burning sensation unlike anything she had experienced before as part of her intense training regime.
“I’d had pains before in my arms, but nothing like this,” she said.
“I suddenly developed this terrible burning sensation, along with tightness and swelling.
“It sometimes really felt as thought my arms were about to explode.”
At first she tried to train through the pain, but eventually it all became too much, "It was getting to the stage where I was struggling to use my arms – not just for rowing, but for typing on my laptop and carrying things that weren’t even particularly heavy."
Despite the issues, Alice still held out hope that she could attend the June regatta; less than two months to the event and still with no relief from her constant pain, Alice travelled with her fellow rowers to a training camp in Bordeaux in April.
“We were there for eight days and everything was all fine with me sitting out and just being there really for moral support, as I could hardly hold an oar,” she recalled.
“The flight back was when things started to go wrong.”
Thirty minutes in to the two-hour flight back to Birmingham, Alice’s hands began to turn blue, going numb and hard, while her pulse was hardly detectable.
“It was terrifying, especially knowing that you are up in the air and can’t do anything about it.
“I told my friends and they seemed equally concerned, but just tried to keep me calm and made me put my arms up in the air to try to reduce the swelling.”
Dismissing the advice of her teammates, Alice went home to student accommodation instead of hospital, as she was due to stay with her grandmother. Instead of the problem going away, two days later, her hands were still blue and numb and she was unable to hold anything. Her grandmother then stepped in and insisted she get treatment.
“The doctors who saw me were all really surprised, as they had only ever read about compartment syndrome and never seen it for themselves,” said Alice, who was in hospital for a week.
“They would invite the medical students to come and see me and take notes.
“For me, though, it was as much a relief as it was a shock. I was just glad that they finally knew what it was that had been giving me so much grief.”
Doctors had to act quickly, telling Alice that the pressure was so severe it was in danger of causing irreparable nerve damage. Surgery was needed, which would involve “slicing into” her arms, to relieve the build up of pressure. The two operations that she needed left her with “long scars” along her forearms - and stopped her from racing in the June regatta - her dream since the age of 14.
Speaking to the Press Association, Alice explained:
“The operations were invasive and the scars are now very obvious.
“But I don’t try and hide them and I get annoyed when people just stare and don’t ask how it happened, because I like to tell people the story of them.
“What is much more hard to bear is the fact that I couldn’t do Henley and that now I don’t know if I’ll be able to get back in a boat ever again.
“That’s the upsetting part.”
Despite being unable to compete Alice loyally supported her team from the shore, cheering them on as they qualified for the knockout stages, where they then left the competition.
“I was really pleased for them all and it was a great day, but there were times when it got a bit too much for me and I had to step away and have a moment to myself,” she said.
Despite her ordeal, Alice wears her two-and-a-half inch scars with pride, explaining: “I think they tell a story and actually I’m proud to show them because they are nothing to be ashamed of and they show that I’m someone who is committed to their sport – but just got unlucky.”