BY KRISTEN BUCKLES
Sometimes love comes in unexpected places and at unexpected times.
Three years ago this Christmas, DeAnna Fillers began dialysis treatment at Fresenius Medical Center, located on Serral Drive.
Fillers, who is middle-aged and soft-spoken, is among the center's youngest patients.
Jeffrey Piatt had also recently become a patient there.
Dialysis treatment, a filtering of the blood for patients with chronic kidney disease, can take hours and is necessary several times a week. Outgoing and talkative, Piatt freely admitted that he loves to chat with all the other patients to pass the time.
So when he heard about a new patient coming to the center who was close to his own age, he looked forward to making a new friend.
"I said, 'Well, she's going to be scared to death,'" he said. "As we started talking, we realized there was something special between us.
"Then we realized we couldn't be without each other because we're so much alike."
The couple enjoyed rattling off those similarities: end-stage renal failure, dialysis, diabetic retinopathy and a way of thinking about and enjoying life.
They even came to realize that they had worked together 20 years ago and, without realizing it due to the size of the other companies, off and on throughout the next two decades.
Even still, it took a little encouragement from the center's caregivers to convince the two to branch beyond chatting during treatments.
"When [one of the caregivers] first mentioned it to me, I said, 'You're crazy!'" Fillers said. "I finally had to admit to her that she was right."
The two began talking for hours on the phone after treatments. And, on Valentine's Day, they officially began dating.
"It does sound strange for two people to meet with the health conditions that we have," Piatt said from his position beside Fillers' treatment chair.
"You can tell by looking at us, we're not sickly," he added. "We're both doing very well. There's more good days [ahead]."
A time when Fillers had to go out of town for special treatment due to a temporary decline in her health made Piatt determined to make sure those days were going to be spent together, he said.
"DeAnna came back. I've not let her go since and I'm not going to."
He began secretly coordinating with the center's staff to plan a proposal on Friday, Sept. 13.
Each with a rose in hand, the staff followed Piatt into the treatment room and gathered around Fillers' treatment chair.
One caregiver's cell phone played "Chapel of Love." All had grins of delight.
"I feel like I'm going to get proposed to!" one whispered.
At first, Fillers was speechless -- at least, until it came time to say, "Yes, of course!"
Piatt gave Fillers what he said is his most prized possession, a silver, shark-tooth necklace. Her eyes filled with tears as he placed it around her neck.
The two shared a brief kiss as the caregivers surrounding her chair visibly melted.
"Even though we're your caregivers, you're also our friends and like family to us," Clinic Manager Cindy Powell said. "Thank you for giving us something to look forward to today."
Fillers still appeared in a state of shock.
"I never would have thought! I had no clue," she said. "Wow. That's all I can say, is wow."
Meanwhile, Piatt gave a moving speech, thanking the clinic staff for their care and participation.
"This is where we met," he said. "This is our home away from home because we're here so much."
With a twinkle in his eye and a big grin on his face, he added, "I always said Friday the 13th is my lucky day!"