Woman who died three days after wedding used smile to make others happy

MAYVILLE --The happiest day of Jennifer Karboviak's life was the day she got to walk down the aisle to join her husband, Rick. "Look at her face," her mother, Deb Retting, said as she looked at a photo of Rick holding Jennifer on their wedding da...

MAYVILLE --The happiest day of Jennifer Karboviak's life was the day she got to walk down the aisle to join her husband, Rick.

"Look at her face," her mother, Deb Retting, said as she looked at a photo of Rick holding Jennifer on their wedding day as Jennifer looked to the heavens. "She's just beaming."

Rick and Jennifer, who met 1½ years earlier and married last Saturday, spent three days together. She died, unexpectedly, on Tuesday at age 27.

Jennifer had Neurofibromatosis-1, and a tumor had ruptured an iliac artery in her leg. She collapsed in her bathroom at home and died instantly.

Despite the pain Jennifer lived with for almost her entire life, her friends and family said Friday that she found happiness in the last seven years of her life and kept smiling for others. Rick said her condition did not make her the person she was: it was her eyes, smile and soul he fell in love with.


"When you saw her smile and her eyes light up, her condition didn't matter," he said. "She's got a big tumor on her leg, but it doesn't affect her smile or her soul."

Her story reveals how she overcame her struggles and found a life of happiness with more friends and support than anyone could imagine, as well as how she inspired others.

"What you saw on Facebook was her shining end example," Rettig said. "How she managed to go where she was to where she turned out to be is just amazing."


When she was 4, Jennifer was diagnosed with NF-1, sometimes referred to as Elephant Man disease. The inherited disorder causes tissue tumors to form in the skin as well as nerves from the brain and spinal cord.

The condition can vary from person to person. Some people may not show exterior signs of tumors, while others develop tumors that distort the skin and face.

Jennifer's tumors never became cancerous, but there wasn't much doctors could for her, as there is no known treatment for the disease. The tumors made her body weaker than normal. The disorder caused Jennifer to be in pain, Rettig said, adding it twisted her spinal cord and caused her to hunch.


"Medically speaking, every time we went into the hospital, it was bad news," Retting said. "Life was just slowly taken away from her."

Jennifer had few friends and lived a lonely life before she got to college, Rettig said. She remembers her daughter having a prom date, but Jennifer's social life was limited.

She attended University of Jamestown for a year before transferring to Mayville State University, where Jennifer her first true, longtime friend, Beth Kerlin of Grand Forks, in her sophomore year in 2008.

"She was always there for me no matter what level of pain she was in," Kerlin said. "Constantly making me laugh and whatnot."

Jennifer was quiet at first, but once you got to know her she would open up to others and tried to make everyone around her smile, Kerlin said.

"We ended up growing up together that way because I was shyer, too," she said. "Who wouldn't want to be her friend?"

'Angel on Earth'


It appeared that Mayville State was her Godsend, Rettig said. Life seemed to have turn around as she began to make more friends.

Then she met Rick, someone who cared for her no matter what, Rettig said. Both worked at Mayville State--Jennifer for the university's child development program and Rick as a recruiter--and as they spent more time together they began to realize they wanted to marry each other.

"When I looked into her eyes, her soul came out," he said. "She was just a pure and holy soul, and that is what I was searching for."

Kerlin and Rettig said Rick always was there to support Jennifer, whether it was cooking meals or letting her lean against his arm. Both said he saw past her condition.

"She met somebody who was her soulmate," Rettig said. "He respected her, and she was willing to take on all of the issues she had."

Kerlin said she could tell Jennifer was in pain the day of her wedding. But nothing was going to stop Jennifer from joining Rick at the alter.

"She was so excited," said Kerlin, who was a bridesmaid in Jennifer's wedding. "You could tell she was kind of hurting that day, but she pushed through it."

Rick said when Jennifer revealed herself to him at the wedding ceremony, she looked like "an angel on Earth."

"I said, 'Honey, you're glowing,'" he said. "'Everything about you is just glowing on you.'"

Jennifer danced with her husband and smiled through the night because it was her moment to shine, Rettig said.

Jennifer knew she may die because of the disease, but Rettig's daughter prayed that she would get to experience the happiness that came with marriage and life.

"She was so happy," Rettig said of the wedding day. "I truly believe God gave her that experience ... like that ice cream on the cake moment. It was her time to shine."

'Jenny, good job'

After graduating from Mayville State, Jennifer became a class float for the university's child development program, where she taught children. The day care's program director, Denise Overmoe, said Jennifer had a positive outlook on life and was a very loving person.

Jennifer always had a smile on her face, co-worker and friend Kara Schreiner said.

"She was one of the best people I know," she said. "She was genuine, she was courteous, she was good. ... She always had a positive attitude on life."

Schreiner, who grew up in Jennifer's hometown, said she remembers Jennifer being a quiet girl.

"Seeing her mature into this beautiful woman and having all of those friends and meeting all of those people was amazing," she said. "It made me happy. She had so much happiness that seeing her happy made me happy."

After Jennifer died, Rick brought the bubble bottles from the wedding for the day care center at Mayville State where Jennifer worked, saying he wanted the children to enjoy them, Overmoe said.

"I just kind of came to me it was something that Jenny might want," Rick said, adding he felt Jennifer was telling him to give the bubbles to the children and co-workers to help them heal.

The group decided to send the bubbles into the air Friday for Jennifer. About 25 children and co-workers spent the morning blowing bubbles in Jennifer's honor.

"You could tell she affected their lives," he said. "She impacted so many lives."

Kerlin said she is looking into raising awareness for NF-1 and research on the disease. Rick said he hopes her story will serve as inspiration to help find a cure. He said he has gotten multiple messages from people who said Jennifer had touched their lives.

"It's been very hard, but I think as we go through the past few days, Jenny's smile and Jenny's spirit is helping us pull through," he said.

Jennifer's story has sparked hundreds of responses on Facebook, and seeing how many condolences people had for her was unexpected but remarkable, Rettig said.

"I knew she had some friends, I just didn't realize the impact she made for everybody," she said. "And I knew her when it wasn't like that.

"For me it was just like," she said as she held her thumbs up, "'Jenny, good job.' I can't believe it."

A GoFundMe page has been set up for Rick to help with costs at .

Visitation will be 2 to 4 p.m. Sunday with a prayer service at Our Lady of Peace Catholic Church in Mayville. A funeral Mass will be held at 11 a.m. Monday at the church with burial in Mayville Cemetery.

Photo of Rick and Jennifer Karboviak were taken on their wedding day, Saturday, June 4, in Mayville. Submitted Photo.

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