CLEARWATER — He couldn't see her face. He didn't know her name or story. But a strange feeling gripped Cameron Hill, caught his breath, as he hoisted the bloodied woman into the Bayflite helicopter.
"I don't know why, but I knew I'd see her again," said the 38-year-old Clearwater firefighter-paramedic. "I believed she would live."
On Jan. 24, 2012, Cameron responded to the goriest 911 call of his 17-year career: A young woman had been stabbed 32 times outside her home near Crest Lake Park.
He found Melissa Dohme, 20 at the time, unconscious but breathing on the crimson-streaked pavement.
"It was so bad," he said, "you couldn't tell she was blond."
Police said Melissa's former boyfriend had slashed her hands, arms, face and head. The knifing only ceased, Cameron later learned, because a passing couple stopped it and called for help.
That night, as the helicopter faded into the darkness, Cameron couldn't shake the feeling he had about the woman. Fourteen months later, with sudden tears, he calls it a brush with destiny, a "sixth sense."
• • •
Melissa, now 21, spent three weeks at St. Petersburg's Bayfront Medical Center. She flat-lined four times, received 12 units of blood, suffered a stroke that affected her balance. A severed nerve partly paralyzed the left side of her face.
Doctors weren't sure that Melissa would ever speak, smile or walk the same. But she left rehab without a cane. Last May, she traveled to England, France, Italy, Scotland and Ireland with her girlfriends. She returned to school at St. Petersburg College-Clearwater with renewed passion to become a nurse.
She spoke at high schools and colleges. She shook the hands of the doctors, nurses, EMTs — everyone who saved her life that January night, except the firefighter-paramedics from Clearwater Station 47.
In October, Melissa spoke at a Clearwater church. Two of her first responders surprised her there. One was Cameron.
She hugged him. Her mother hugged him. They laughed, cried, exchanged numbers and made plans to meet again at the firehouse for barbecued ribs.
"I was weirdly giddy," she said. "I had this feeling about him."
Melissa took him a thank you card after the dinner — an excuse, she said, to see him again — and stayed five hours.
They talked easily, naturally. Melissa felt all the butterflies of a full-blown crush. "I didn't think it was possible," she said. "I didn't even want to like anyone."
But did he like her? Cameron hugged her gently, at a safe distance. He smiled shyly, eyes on the ground. That weekend, he'd leave to hunt in Georgia for a month, he told her. Could he call?
• • •
Cameron didn't know how to act. He wanted to be respectful, professional. He'd never before met someone he had helped save, and now, so quickly, he was falling for Melissa.
"I couldn't ignore the feelings," he said. "It was a confusing time."
He drove to Georgia to a cabin he owns on acres of countryside, to stock his refrigerator with venison and clear his head. But his thoughts were full of the green-eyed girl in cowboy boots.
When Cameron returned, he attended Melissa's SPC graduation, where she was named Clearwater Student of the Year. As she spoke onstage, he felt dizzy. Awe-struck. She's so strong, he thought. So determined. So beautiful.
He asked her to dinner at Smokey Bones for their first official date.
"It's been so long since I've liked someone," Cameron told her. "I don't know if I remember how to kiss a girl."
"Well," Melissa said, "maybe you should try."
• • •
After that night, Cameron and Melissa were together every day. She'd visit him at the fire station. He'd take her truck mudding. They'd eat barbecued ribs and listen to country music.
She taught him her favorite Bible verses and the Serenity prayer. He taught her to shoot a hunting rifle.
Melissa and Cameron were together Wednesday at a pre-trial hearing in the first-degree attempted murder case against her ex-boyfriend, Robert Lee Burton Jr. Melissa had to testify about the times before the stabbing that she says Burton hit and shoved her.
Cameron listened, heart pounding, and focused on staying in his seat. He thought of that January night, of wiping Melissa's blood off the pavement.
She returned to her seat and cuddled into Cameron. "You were amazing," he told her.
She and Cameron are best friends, Melissa says. Equal partners.
"When I look back on that night, I can't think of it as all bad anymore because I met Cameron," she said. "He's the one I've been waiting for. My fairy tale."
Danielle Paquette can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4224.