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Kara Martin RunningKara Martin White Coat

Kara Martin has always loved sports and discovering first-hand what the human body can do. However, her personal experience as a patient receiving occupational therapy services started her on a different kind of race—pursuit of a Master of Science in Occupational Therapy (MSOT) degree at USI. “That was really my deciding factor; this field was something I wanted to be a part of to make that same impact for other people,” she says.

Martin, who was a member of the USI Track and Field and Cross Country teams for two years, finished her final year of college eligibility in May 2023 as the Ohio Valley Conference Champion in the Steeplechase and 5,000-meter events. These honors are even more remarkable given serious health issues she had previously overcome.

The Herrin, Illinois, native graduated from the University of Tennessee at Martin (UTM) in December 2020 with a degree in exercise science. However, during the summer before her junior year at UTM, when she was 19 years old, she was diagnosed with osteomyelitis, an inflammation or swelling that occurs in the bone. “It was kind of a random, out of the blue thing,” she says. “I just randomly got super sick and felt like I pulled my groin. I tried to power through, but my fever just wouldn't go down, so that is when I went to the hospital, and they eventually found it after many tests. It started as a pelvic bone infection that we really had no clear answers as to how it started. It turned full body osteomyelitis for a small amount of time before I got treatment and a PICC line surgically implanted into my arm to pump medicine.”

The following year after osteomyelitis, she was diagnosed with drop foot, a general term used to describe difficulty in lifting the front part of the foot. “I was having a hard time toeing off and getting on my toes when I ran,” she says. Then, at age 22, an MRI on her back revealed she had an extruded disc in her L5-S1 region that was pinching her sciatic nerve down her left leg. “I think the back injury happened because my body was weak from the osteomyelitis, and I was trying to get back into competing too soon. I had to do over a year of therapy before I was even allowed to consider back surgery.”

During the time she was going through therapy, Martin knew she wanted to be an occupational therapist (OT). “Our nutritionist/assistant coach at UTM at that time, Mary Ballinger, ran for USI as an undergrad. She knew USI had an OT program, so we talked about it,” says Martin. “I did not know I would be able to run for USI at the time, but with a turn of events, I had eligibility left. So, my sights were set on USI to finish that out with the hope to get into the OT Program. USI is also only two hours from my hometown, so I knew it was a good fit—I didn't have to be super-far away from my family.” 

With a plan in place, Martin enrolled at USI as an undergraduate during the Fall 2021 Semester; this allowed her to take the prerequisite courses required for application to the OT Program. She also joined the USI Cross Country and Track teams, continuing to run for both during her first year of the OT Program, starting in the 2022 Fall Semester.

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