Melissa Dohme started getting calls and texts around 2:30 a.m. Her ex-boyfriend said he had to see her. He was crying, saying he missed her. She told him to stop — she had class at 9:30 — but he kept calling and texting. Around 3 a.m., he said he was near her house. He only needed two seconds. He just wanted a hug.
Melissa grabbed her cell phone and pepper spray. He had hurt her before, but she wasn't scared. He sounded sad and vulnerable.
She walked out the door, down the road a bit, near Crest Lake Park. He asked for a hug, so she put her arms around him.
She heard a click and felt a sharp pain, first in her neck, then in her shoulder. He stabbed and punched her over and over. The knife pierced her head, arms and hands.
She heard the knife crack her skull. She felt him knock her teeth loose.
She was begging and screaming. Then she couldn't scream anymore.
That's what happened to Melissa Dohme on Jan. 24, according to various accounts in reports from Clearwater police. They say Melissa was brutally attacked by her ex-boyfriend, Robert Lee Burton Jr., who faces a first-degree attempted murder charge. He told police he stabbed Melissa with a pocket knife, then got a bigger knife from his truck and did "horrible things" with it.
Burton, 21, is 6 feet 4 inches tall and weighed 245 pounds at the time of his arrest. Melissa is 20 and 5 feet tall.
While Melissa fought for her life in a hospital that night, Burton was apprehended. He had overdosed on sleeping pills and crashed his truck into a store in Pasco County. He is being held in the Pinellas County Jail in lieu of $150,000 bail.
• • •
Melissa says her ex was determined to kill her, but that wasn't part of God's plan.
"It should have never happened," she said. "And God knows that, and it wasn't my time, so he lined everyone up to save me."
"Everyone" includes a young couple who happened to be hanging out at Crest Lake Park, the police officer who found her, the top-notch medics who kept her alive and the skilled doctors who saved her at Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg.
The young couple, both in their late teens, were at the park near Melissa's house when they heard her scream, according to accounts in police reports. They ran over and saw a "chubby" man with a red beard on top of Melissa.
The young woman told the bearded man to stop. "You're going to kill her!" she shouted.
The young man tried to push the knife-wielding attacker off of Melissa, but the bearded man grabbed the youth's arm, telling him he had a gun and would kill him.
Then, he went to his truck and pulled out a bigger knife with a wooden handle.
The young woman tried to help Melissa get away, but the bearded man came back. She ran toward the park and called 911.
Melissa says the intervention of the young couple, who don't wish to be identified publicly, saved her life.
"He would have stabbed me 'til I was dead," she said.
The stabbing continued after the couple left, Melissa said, then her attacker stopped and walked back to his truck.
"He's going to run me over. He's going to finish it," she recalls thinking.
Somehow, she got to her feet and collapsed near a mailbox on her neighbor's yard while her attacker drove off in a red Ford Ranger.
Melissa was fading. She couldn't move. She couldn't yell.
"That's when the police officer shined her light on me," she recalls.
The officer asked her questions while medics worked on her and loaded her into the ambulance. She heard them talking about flying her to Bayfront.
"Oh my God," she recalls thinking. "They're calling BayFlite. That's really bad."
• • •
Melissa and Robert Lee Burton met at Clearwater High School and dated for about two years. Last October, he attacked her outside her home, pulling her hair and punching her, according to court records.
Burton faces a battery charge for that incident. He was released on his own recognizance, but didn't show up for court and was arrested on Dec. 26.
He was released the next day and ordered not to have contact with Melissa.
Less than a month later, police say he tried to kill her.
• • •
Doctors at Bayfront weren't sure at first if Melissa would survive.
"They said I flat-lined four times," she said.
She counted 32 knife wounds. A cut on the right side of her face and jaw that severed a nerve and hit the carotid artery almost killed her. She was given 12 units of blood.
Doctors stitched up her wounds and the next day performed more extensive surgery. She lay in the intensive care unit, in extreme pain and with a tube to help her breathe.
It wasn't long, though, before she stuck a pencil between the pinkie and ring finger of her left hand and started jotting notes — she's right-handed, but that hand was too badly injured to use. She wanted to make sure her mom, Joann, called her work and school to tell them she wouldn't be in.
And she had one burning question: Would she still be able to go to Europe with her girlfriends this May?
On her fifth day in the hospital, her breathing tube was removed and she was moved to a trauma room for several days. While she was there, doctors noticed her eyes were jerking. Tests revealed she had suffered a stroke in an artery that supplies blood to a part of the brain that controls balance. They weren't sure if she'd be able to walk without a cane or walker.
But soon, she was walking down the hall, and within a few days, she was moved to inpatient rehab. It was frustrating at first. She couldn't lift her arm above her head, make a fist or hold a pencil correctly.
In speech therapy, they said she wasn't paying attention to detail and her cognition was off. Melissa, who plans to become a neonatal nurse practitioner, was horrified that her brain wasn't functioning correctly.
On Feb. 10, less than three weeks after she was admitted to the hospital, Melissa returned home. And the next week, she went back to St. Petersburg College to finish her Sociology and Humanities II classes, earning A's in both. Last month, SPC named her Clearwater Student of the Year.
Her neurologist cleared her to drive, so on April 1 she went back to work in guest services at Morton Plant Hospital's Women's Center. She also started volunteering again in the neonatal ICU at the hospital. And she squeezed in seven hours of rehab each week.
"I'm a busy girl," Melissa said. "I always have been."
So far, Melissa thinks she's racked up about $500,000 in medical bills, but there are more to come. She needs additional surgery, including cosmetic procedures to smooth scars on her face and neck, her mother said. And she may need surgery on both hands.
Melissa had braces on her teeth as a teen. Now, she must get them again, along with a dental implant to replace a tooth that was knocked out.
She suffered nerve damage on the right side of her face and can't blink her right eye or smile fully. She must put drops in her eye frequently and sleep with a patch over it.
But a couple of weeks ago, she was able to move her cheek. She's hoping her face will work normally in a few months.
Support from her family and the community has helped lift her spirits, she said. Dozens of people she knew and many she didn't have showered her with cards and gifts and donations. Strangers have left prayer quiltand flowers on her doorstep.
On Wednesday night, Melissa left for her trip to Europe, where she will backpack through England, France and Italy.
"I'm just blessed I can still go," she said before leaving.
She's proud of how far she's come in a little over three months. It's a miracle, she says.
"I think back to when I was in the hospital laying in bed. I couldn't breathe on my own, couldn't walk on my own, couldn't talk," she said. "Now I'm walking, talking, breathing. I can run a mile. I'm working. I'm back at school. Everything is just how I want it to be."
And most importantly, her attacker didn't accomplish what he set out do.
"He didn't win and I won," she said firmly. "He tried to murder me, and he failed."
Lorri Helfand can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4155. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.