JULIA HENNRIKUS/THE HOYA Junior Sarah Cotton overcame a nearly fatal staph infection last year and bounced back to contribute to Georgetown cross-country’s fourth-place finish at the NCAA Division I Championship.
Junior Sarah Cotton overcame a nearly fatal staph infection last year and bounced back to contribute to Georgetown cross-country’s fourth-place finish at the NCAA Division I Championship.

This past fall, Georgetown junior cross-country runner Sarah Cotton helped the Georgetown women’s cross-country team to a fourth-place finish in the 2014 NCAA Division I Championship. Finishing seventh among the Hoyas and 121st overall in the runner pool with over 250 runners, the Madison, Conn. native played a key role in her team’s success at the cross-country championship.

Judging from Cotton’s successful results in the championships, it is difficult to believe that just a year earlier, she was lying in a bed at the Georgetown University Hospital. Weak and suffering from a 108.5-degree fever, a staph infection had spread into Cotton’s bloodstream. The infection threatened her career as a Georgetown athlete and her life.

“It was really scary — just incredibly frightening that the illness had manifested itself in such a way that, if not cared for, it could be life-threatening,” Head Coach Michael Smith said. “The second time I was in the emergency room with her, she was really not doing well at all. I’d just never heard of a fever that high ever, so I felt scared, and I just wanted to help her.”

After racing multiple competitions in the spring 2013 outdoor track season, Cotton suffered a stress fracture in her pelvis — more specifically, her sacrum — in the early summer. The injury necessitated considerable time off from running.

Though the obstacle meant a minor bump in the road of Cotton’s career as a Georgetown athlete, she returned to school in the fall prepped and enthusiastic for the ensuing season.

“Over the summer I was feeling some pain and I thought it was just the stress fracture, and I was getting fevers randomly but didn’t think much of it,” Cotton said. “I guess in September or October it started getting really painful at some points, but then it would subside and be fine.”

However, the temporary injury transformed into a much more serious condition. At first, Cotton brushed off occasional fevers and temporary pain as minor aches and discomforts. However, one night, Cotton’s pain escalated to an extreme level. Lying in her bed feeling completely immobile, she realized that something was very wrong.

“I was lying in bed and my roommate was down the hallway. … I could just barely move in my bed, so I was like, ‘Okay, this is not normal,’” Cotton said. “So, I somehow got myself out of bed and I told Haley, my roommate, ‘I don’t know what’s wrong with me, but I need to go to the hospital.’”

For Cotton, her two-week stint in the hospital was a blur. The turn of events stretching from her initial severe pain to her treatment and eventual release became a surreal experience. Even her diagnosis itself is hard to recall.

“I didn’t have any idea of what it was, so I guess I didn’t think much of it. I think I was more like, ‘What the hell is going on?’ Mostly, I think I just wanted to feel better and get out. I just [wanted] this to be over,” Cotton said.

Staph infections, caused by the staphylococcus bacteria, are often treatable and occasionally even harmless. However, they can quickly develop into much more serious conditions, as evidenced in Cotton’s case. Cotton recovered and returned to Georgetown this past fall ready to compete.

By the numbers, the remarkability of Cotton’s comeback speaks for itself. She finished 19th overall at the James Madison University Open Invitational. Later on, she went on to finish first overall in the women’s 6K race at the Indiana State University Pre-National Meet in Terre Haute, Ind., the location of the NCAA Championship course. Cotton continued her success by being one of the top 15 runners at both the Big East Meet and Mid-Atlantic Regional Meet.

“It was incredible — I couldn’t have asked for more,” Cotton said of her remarkable return. “It obviously felt really good to do what I’ve always loved doing. At some points in the hospital they were saying, ‘You’ll never be able to run again,’ which was terrible to think about.”

“We were just surprised at how much she could do. To run in our top seven is really difficult to do,” Smith said in regard to Cotton’s participation in the NCAA Championship for the Hoyas.

As an athlete that also competes in indoor and outdoor track and field, Cotton will continue to race throughout the remainder of the year along with the rest of Georgetown’s cross-country and track and field athletes.

“I think she’s just a great inspiration to the team, about persevering through difficult times,” Smith said. “When something seems hopeless, to continue to have hope.”

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