- Associated Press - Sunday, April 27, 2014

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.

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