As the sun shone through the trees and the horse-drawn carriage pulled up to where the altar was staged, Melissa Harris, an officer with the Clearwater Police Department, felt her eyes welling as she recalled the first time she met the bride. Now she was one of Melissa Dohme's best friends and bridesmaids.
"It came full circle for me about how far she's come since I first met her," Harris said.
The ceremony took place at the Lange Farm, a pastoral wedding venue in rural Dade City. Inside the carriage, Dohme, 25, wedged between her parents and wearing cowboy boots under her gown, broke down, too.
A violent attack five years ago could have ended in tragedy. Now her life was headed in new directions.
"My family never had to go to my funeral," she said. "Instead they got to go to my wedding."
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In 2012, Dohme received a text from ex-boyfriend Robert Burton. He said he wanted closure in their relationship and asked to meet her outside her house for a final hug. Instead, he stabbed her face and arms 32 times with multiple knives, fleeing after passers-by intervened. Harris was the first officer to respond, alone with Dohme for five minutes before more help arrived.
In her 18 years on the job, she had never seen anything like it. She remembered being shocked by how Dohme summoned the composure to tell her what happened and who had attacked her.
Then more help came, including Clearwater firefighter Cameron Hill. That night, as he helped place Dohme in a helicopter for the airlift to Bayfront Health St. Petersburg, he had a feeling he'd see her again.
Dohme was close to death when she reached the hospital, said associate medical director for trauma Dr. Jeffrey Johnson, who also attended the wedding. She flat-lined four times, suffered a stroke and had nerve damage that would leave her partially paralyzed and unable to smile.
But if her heart didn't give up that night, he couldn't either.
And as his patient began to recover at Bayfront, Johnson came to know Dohme and her family. She gave him a photo of herself that still sits in his office.
"In my business, being a trauma surgeon, we don't often get closure to many of things we're part of," Johnson said. "For me, this is a happy ending to a horrendous situation. Her case is a reminder that if one is given a chance and perseveres, there are still great things that can lie ahead for you."
In the initial months of recovery, Dohme decided she'd be single forever.
"How could I explain what I went through to anyone?" she asked. "It's not something you can talk about on a first date. I thought the only way I'd be okay is if I was independent and single."
Then she realized she was giving herself a life sentence.
She began sharing her story and speaking out to others about domestic violence.
"Every time you share your story, you shatter the shame that comes along with it," she said.
A few months later, during a speaking engagement at a Clearwater church, she again saw Cameron Hill, who had come with another first responder. He invited Dohme and her mom for dinner at the fire station. It was a new beginning.
Soon, he and Dohme became inseparable, together for everything from yard work to Burton's sentencing — life in prison.
"Especially after leaving abuse, lots of women think they'll never be able to open their hearts and love again," Dohme said. "I've learned what real love is. I feel like I've had my best friend by my side."
In May 2015, while working as an Outreach Coordinator and Violence Prevention Advocate at Hands Across the Bay, she was asked to throw the first pitch at a Tampa Bay Rays game. Just before, Cameron proposed to her on the field.
They set the wedding date for two years later — enough time for Dohme to graduate from St. Petersburg College, where she was a full-time student in addition to her advocacy work. She also needed to undergo the nerve and muscle surgeries that would allow her to smile on her wedding day.
As soon as the proposal was made, Julie Weintraub, president of Gold and Diamond Source and founder of Hands Across the Bay, got on the phone to arrange the details. The Lange Farm donated the venue. Malindy Elene in South Tampa donated the dress. Brooke Palmer donated wedding planning services. And almost a dozen others donated goods and services when they heard Melissa's story.
"The community gave us this dream wedding," Dohme Hill said. "That was one evil person. But since that day, we've been blessed by so much good in the world. And good always overcomes evil."
• • •
The sunny wedding day in early March may have seemed like a fairy tale ending, but Cameron Hill, 42, said it's not their final chapter. It's just the beginning.
"The past was the scary part," said Dohme Hill, who talks to teens about healthy dating, learning the red flags of abuse and how to build self-esteem and confidence. She said she's wondered if she should keep doing it, being the woman with "the red stamp on her forehead."
Some days are harder than others, but it's worth it if she can change one girl's life, she said. "I've been given this platform and I'm going to use this for the rest of my life."
Cameron Hill, who recently retired from the fire department, said the widespread attention to their story over the last few years, including features in People magazine and the Daily Mail, has weighed on them.
"Some of it's been kind of rough," he said. "There's stuff you'd rather forget. … There's a lot of pressure from outside people seeing us as this perfect fairy tale couple."
His wife says they've had to develop thicker skin dealing with comments from Internet trolls.
"We're normal people with normal problems," she said. "I'm still me and he's still him."
Dohme Hill hopes to write a book sharing her story. The two also are considering having children and starting an alpaca therapeutic ranch.
"I had to give up my life plan of what I thought my life was supposed to be and follow God's plan," Dohme Hill said. "We're ready to start our next chapter."
Contact Divya Kumar at [email protected] Follow @divyadivyadivya.