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Alumnus pursues higher education in honor of husband

By Laura Traister
On April 27, 2014

  • Jennifer Hovatter worked towards a degree at ETSU in order to find a cure for lymphedema, an incurable disease that claimed the life of her husband, Thomas Hovatter, in 2007.

Jennifer Hovatter met her late husband, Thomas, in 1998 when his father set them up. She was working at Pal's when his father, a bread delivery man, suggested she call his son. She did, and they talked for a week before meeting in person.
"I knew right then when I talked to him the first time that it was meant to be," said Hovatter. They dated for a while before he proposed. "I said 'yes' before he could even ask me."
They married in September 2000. A few years later, when his body began to swell and show symptoms of lymphedema, many medical professionals told him he just needed to lose weight. According to the American Cancer Society, lymphedema is "a build-up of lymph fluid in the fatty tissues just under the skin."
The build-up causes swelling, usually in the limbs. Without treatment, lymphedema can lead to infection, various disabilities, and even death.
On June 18, 2007, Thomas died from a cellulitis infection due to lack of treatment for lymphedema.
One night six months before his death, he made a request of his wife that she would remember in her darkest moment.  "He looked at me and said, 'Dear ... you need to learn this treatment and start your own business and then you can treat me.'"
"The night that he passed away, I made that decision to start that business, and that would be the lymphedema clinic, so I enrolled in ETSU in 2008 with the dream of becoming a lymphatic therapist in Thomas' memory so that I could help lymphedema patients in his memory and because he said that."
That October, Hovatter went by herself to Atlanta to attend a conference put on by the Lighthouse Lymphedema Network. She learned about lymphedema awareness days and signed up to get her own day in June.
This year she will be holding the seventh annual Thomas Hovatter Lymphedema Awareness Day. She tries to hold the event on the 18th each year, but if it falls on a weekend, she chooses the weekend closest to the date of her husband's passing.
In the fall of 2008 she enrolled in ETSU. After five years of schooling, she graduated in December 2013 with a bachelor's degree in public health.
She is the first in her family to graduate from college.
"Going back to school was I think one of the best things I ever did, going to ETSU. I've lived here all my life, and I've always driven by ETSU, and I've been on the campus before ... but I never thought that I'd ever go back to school, but I had a purpose for it ... I knew as I was walking to class every day I was going to be able to help lymphedema patients one day, and in his memory."
She originally planned to go on to graduate school for physical therapy and to specialize in lymphatic therapy. Her dream has since changed to become a psychologist.
A few years ago at another Lighthouse Lymphedema Network conference she encountered a story about a patient who wanted to commit suicide because of his condition.
"I came home and I told my mom, I said, 'I really want to become a lymphatic therapist, but I feel that my heart is where the patients feel and how they cope with it.'"
Watching her husband cry during his sickness broke her heart. She knows firsthand the psychological toll that lymphedema takes on patients and their loved ones. She is now preparing to apply for graduate school at ETSU so she can pursue a doctorate in psychology.
She still wants to open a lymphedema clinic, in which therapists will treat the patients' bodies and she will treat their hearts and minds.
"A lymphedema patient has so many different factors they have to deal with. Having the disease alone. The treatment, whether they're properly diagnosed, if they get diagnosed at all ... they have to deal with their appearance, what they look like ... They have to wear the compression garments. They're not pretty, and they're not fun to wear. They're horrible ... they have to deal with people staring at them all the time. How are they going to afford the treatment?"
Hovatter also serves on an advocacy board for the Lymphedema Treatment Act, which if passed will require insurance companies to help with the steep cost of compression garments, one of the main treatments for lymphedema. Along with fellow advocates, she lobbies in Washington each September.
 Closer to home, she hopes that ETSU and the local community will join her in her passionate quest to get all lymphedema patients the treatment they deserve.
One goal of hers is to introduce more about lymphedema into the curriculum to make all medical and public health students aware of lymphedema and the problems of misdiagnosis.
She even has hopes that laboratories in the area might delve into research about a cure for lymphedema: "Once you have lymphedema, you always have it. There's no cure ... that's something I'm working on."
The third week of June is Tennessee's designated lymphedema awareness week.
The seventh annual Thomas Hovatter Lymphedema Awareness day will be on Saturday, June 21, at Harvest Time Baptist Church. "I lost my husband to this, but I don't want to see another patient die from this disease. I don't want to see another patient go through that. I don't want to see another spouse or friend or family member or loved one go through a loss of a lymphedema patient when there's so much that we can be doing to try to help them. And that's what I've devoted my life to doing, and I want to thank ETSU for helping me with that because they're helping me get there."
For more information, visit or contact Hovatter at or by phone (423) 341-5737.

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