CLEARWATER — Days after Melissa Dohme was repeatedly stabbed in the face, head and neck, the 20-year-old is able to speak in a wispy voice, eat mashed potatoes and ice cream and walk down a hospital hallway with assistance.
"She wouldn't have survived if it wasn't for (God)," said her sister Michelle, 22.
Police say Dohme was brutally attacked by her ex-boyfriend, Robert Lee Burton Jr., on Jan. 24 outside her home near Crest Lake Park.
It may have been even worse if a young couple hadn't been walking near the park before dawn. The couple saw Dohme being attacked by a large bearded man, according to a sworn statement seeking a warrant for Burton's arrest. One of them, a young man whose name has not been released by police, fought off Dohme's attacker, who drove off.
Burton, a 20-year-old who is 6 feet 4 inches tall and weighs 245 pounds, was apprehended hours later after he overdosed on pills and got into a car wreck in Pasco County, police said. He was booked into the Pinellas County Jail on Tuesday on a charge of attempted first-degree murder.
After the attack, Dohme was airlifted to Bayfront Medical Center with life-threatening injuries. The bright, cheerful St. Petersburg College student with plans of becoming a nurse practitioner cheated death several times, her sister said.
"She flatlined four times because she lost so much blood," said Dohme's sister, who is studying to become an occupational therapist.
Dohme, who is about 5 feet 1 tall, went through 12 units of blood, well over what's in the average human body, her sister said.
Dohme sustained 18 deep stab wounds, most in her upper neck and head. A few of the most severe were a slash-type wound that penetrated her right cheek, another in the back of her head and another cut clear through her right hand. Other injuries included a fractured skull and a fractured nose. Her attacker also knocked out some of her teeth, but her sister's not sure how many.
Dohme underwent an initial surgery to stitch up the wounds. Then doctors placed her in a drug-induced coma for three days. She had more extensive surgery after that.
A week ago, she was finally able to breathe on her own. And on Monday, Dohme was released from intensive care and moved to her own hospital room.
For days, Dohme's face was so swollen it was unrecognizable. Now, her sister said, she looks "more like herself."
On Thursday, Dohme posted a comment on a Facebook page that was started to support her. By late Friday afternoon, it had around 1,350 fans.
She thanked everyone and said, "Go hug your mom, if you got a grandma … you better call her. Spend some time with your dad. Don't fight with your siblings. ENJOY EVERY SECOND OF LIFE. Do something crazy!!! Laugh too hard, til it hurts."
She also encouraged them to smile, rekindle lost relationships and pray a lot.
Before the attack, Dohme was wrapping up her last semester at SPC and was working full-time as a receptionist in the Women's Center at Morton Plant Hospital in Clearwater. She volunteered there, too.
The brutal attack has not weakened her adventurous spirit, her sister said. Dohme, who loves to blast country music on the radio, went skydiving 10 days before the attack to celebrate her 20th birthday. And she has no intention of canceling a trip to Europe she had planned for this summer.
Dohme is going to need plastic surgery, dental implants and rehabilitative therapy. Her family has set up a fund for her medical bills. And with help from friends, they're planning a couple of fundraisers later this month.
They're also working to create legislation that would better protect victims of domestic violence. They want it to require perpetrators to be monitored electronically.
Dohme was brutally assaulted by Burton before, according to her account in a court petition seeking protection from him.
She met Burton at Clearwater High in May 2009. They were both students there and had mutual friends. They dated for around two years, seeing each other every day or two.
Among other incidents, Dohme's petition mentioned a violent episode last October. That attack began around 2:30 in the morning outside her house as well. She said Burton, who was drunk, pulled her hair and punched her numerous times. At some point, she was able to call 911.
She ran from him, but a few minutes later, he caught up with her in Crest Lake Park. He began attacking her again just as police arrived. The officer heard screaming and saw Burton on top of Dohme punching her, an arrest affidavit said.
She'd been pushed, choked and threatened by him numerous times over the last six months, Dohme wrote in her petition. "I was always told if I told anyone I would be found and hurt worse," she said.
Burton was arrested on a charge of domestic battery on Oct. 25 for that incident, and he was released that same day on his own recognizance. He didn't show up for his court date and was arrested again on Dec. 26. He was released the next day and was ordered not to have any contact with Dohme.
Less than a month later, police say, he tried to kill Dohme. One of the two witnesses who happened upon the attack told police that she saw Dohme's attacker stab her, walk to a red pickup truck to retrieve a larger knife and begin stabbing her again.
Lorri Helfand can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4155. Go to tampabay.com/letters to write a letter to the editor.