KINGSPORT, Tenn. (AP) — A conversation with her dying husband has led one local woman on a remarkable journey to raise awareness about the disorder that killed him.
Jennifer Hovatter met her husband Thomas in 1998 after his father played matchmaker with the pair. The two spoke on the phone for a week before they actually met.
When they did meet, it was the classic love-at-first-sight story.
The pair would marry a year and a half after meeting and would be happily married for seven years until a medical disorder known as lymphedema tore them apart.
When Thomas only had a few months left to live, the couple had a conversation that would forever alter the course of Jennifer's life.
"Six months before he passed away, he was looking at the treatment on the computer," Jennifer said. "He said, 'Dear, you need to learn the treatment, start your own business and treat me.' Six months later, he passed away. That night in the hospital when he passed away, I made that decision to start that business and that business is going to be the lymphedema clinic."
Lymphedema occurs when the lymph system is damaged or blocked. The lymph system carries white blood cells which fight infections and the growth of tumors and when it is working as it should, lymph will flow through the body and return to the blood stream.
When the system isn't working properly, fluid will build up in soft body tissue and cause swelling. It may be caused by cancer and cancer treatment and usually affects an arm or a leg, but can affect other body parts, according to the National Cancer Institute.
Jennifer and Thomas first noticed something was wrong in 2003. He was diagnosed with Type II diabetes that year, but something was still wrong.
For years, Thomas could not get properly diagnosed with lymphedema. The couple's primary care physician would only talk to him about getting a gastric bypass. Thomas was 538 pounds when he died, but Jennifer said most of that weight was due to the lymphedema.
He was finally diagnosed with lymphedema by a dermatologist, who pressed on his leg and it pitted or dented. By the time he was diagnosed, it was too late.
"It was shutting his body down," Jennifer said. "It was shutting his liver and kidneys down. It just took over and killed him."
When he passed away on June 18, 2007, Jennifer gave herself a few months to grieve then she got busy on her dream of opening that lymphedema clinic.
She enrolled at East Tennessee State University in 2008 to get a degree in lymphatic therapy. Before Thomas passed away, Jennifer had thought about going back to school but had never pursued it. When he died, things changed.
She also attended a lymphedema conference in Atlanta that same year.
She attended the conference by herself and admits she was terrified. But she took an important idea from the conference, starting a lymphedema awareness day.
Starting in 2008, Jennifer has conducted a Thomas Hovatter lymphedema awareness day every year around June 18. If the 18th falls on a weekday, she tries to have it on the weekend closest to that day. The state of Tennessee has also designated the third week in June lymphedema awareness week.
This year's Thomas Hovatter lymphedema awareness day will take place on June 21 at Harvest Time Baptist Church, 2404 Roseberry Lane, Johnson City, from 1 p.m. until 5 p.m.
Jennifer graduated from ETSU in December of 2013 with a degree in public health. While in school, she changed her mind about what she wanted to do after she attended another conference in Atlanta.
At the conference three years ago, she heard the story of a lymphedema patient who tried to commit suicide. The story broke her heart. It also changed her career path.
She is now pursuing a doctorate degree in psychology so she can help the mental state of those affected by lymphedema and their families.
"I feel that the lymphedema patients need somebody they can talk to about having the disease," she said. "Not just the patients, but also the patients' family members and friends and caretaker of the patients."
Besides pursuing her dream of opening up a lymphedema clinic, Jennifer is very active in other ways to raise awareness about lymphedema.
She started a support group for lymphedema patients and she is on the lymphedema treatment act advocacy board, which lobbies lawmakers in Washington to have insurance companies pay for the treatment of lymphedema.
Even as the years have helped Jennifer heal, her passion lies in helping fight and raise awareness about this disorder.
"I want to do whatever I can to help lymphedema patients," she said. "I want to do whatever I can to help in any way."