CLEARWATER — Six months ago, Melissa Dohme couldn't walk or talk.
In January, she barely survived 32 stab wounds to her face, neck, shoulders and hands — wounds an ex-boyfriend is charged with delivering.
Months later, Melissa has overcome many of her physical challenges, but she faces surgeries and family finances remain a problem.
Because of Melissa's medical and therapy costs, a benefit will be held for her from 3 to 8 p.m. today at Crest Lake Park on Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard. The family estimates it has accumulated $350,000 in medical bills to date.
Dawn Lakin, a neighbor of the Dohme family since 1983, planned the benefit a month ago. She said it was intended to be a neighborhood event, but then support began to grow citywide.
Clear Channel provided free advertising space on two of its billboards that can be seen from U.S. 19. The city's electronic message board on Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard also advertised the benefit.
The family received donations for an auction or raffle, including jewelry from the Gold & Diamond Source and the International Diamond Center, about a dozen deep-sea fishing trips, a homemade quilt and liquor.
Entertainment will include three bounce houses, a professional balloon artist, a Michael Jackson impersonator and local bands. All are donating their time.
"The love and support that the community has given to Melissa …" Dawn said before nearly tearing up. "I don't have words. I never dreamed that it would get this big."
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The attack on Melissa the night of Jan. 24 was on the street where she lived, near Crest Lake Park.
She told police that her ex-boyfriend, Robert Lee Burton Jr., came to the house at 2:30 a.m. and said he needed to talk to her. When she relented and went outside, police say she was brutally stabbed. A teenage couple passing by briefly interrupted the attack and then called 911.
Burton was arrested after he took an overdose of sleeping pills and crashed his truck in Pasco County. He faces a first-degree attempted murder charge.
For the first time at today's benefit, Melissa will meet the firefighter-paramedics of Clearwater Station 47 who treated her the night she was attacked. It's the part of the benefit she looks forward to the most.
"I'm really excited to meet them," she said.
A benefit donation fund was set up at Wells Fargo Bank so the public can make donations. Melissa's mother, Joann, said she is uncertain how much they have received so far.
She said that finances have been strained during Melissa's recovery.
"(But) I'm grateful every time I look at her," Joann said. "Melissa will be having surgery probably in the future on her eye, fingers and hands. She needs tons of dental work."
Melissa recently got braces. She can't replace a tooth knocked out during the attack until her teeth are straight again.
She has a scar that trails from the top of her right ear down to her throat. The nerve above her right eye is severed. Her left middle finger doesn't bend and her right hand is weak, but her friends challenge Melissa to open bottles on her own.
"I struggle until I can get it open," she said. "It's just building the strength back up."
One side of her face barely moves. Her right cheek twitches. She cannot close her right eye or fully smile.
But her spirits remain high. She volunteers and works at Morton Plant Hospital. She plans to graduate from St. Petersburg College in December and attend the University of South Florida next year. She wants to be a nurse.
Immediately after the stabbing, doctors told Melissa she might not be able to take a long-planned backpacking trip to Europe with her girlfriends. But she made the six-week trip, returning June 15.
"It was amazing," Melissa said. "I think it was the best possible thing that I could have done for myself — leaving and getting away for a while."
The public can meet Melissa at the benefit. She'll be the person with a sunny demeanor and half-smile.
Diedra Rodriguez can be reached at (727) 445-4154 or firstname.lastname@example.org. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.