Sunstar Paramedic Jason Bihlajama recognized her the second she walked into the room: Melissa Dohme, the young woman whose life he had helped save after she was brutally attacked by an ex-boyfriend in 2012. She looked healthy; happy to be alive; grateful. Her wounds had healed and even the scars had begun to fade. Bihlajama had not seen or spoken to Melissa since that terrible morning more than a year earlier, but he had thought about her often and followed her recovery in the news.
Bihlajama has seen a lot over the course of his career. Since he became an EMT in 2000 and a Paramedic five years ago, he has responded to many scenes of trauma and violence. He volunteered in the search and rescue efforts in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and spent a week working in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Still, he says, the scene he and his partner EMT Jacqueline Vasquez encountered when they responded to that call in the early morning hours of January 24, 2012, haunts him the most.
At around 3:00 that morning, Bihlajama and Vasquez responded to an assault in the area of Crest Lake Park in Clearwater. A local couple had called 911 after witnessing – and bravely intervening in – a brutal knife attack on Dohme, now 22.
When Bihlajama and Vasquez arrived, they saw Dohme lying on the ground, bleeding from her head and neck. She had been stabbed 32 times by her ex-boyfriend, Robert Burton.
“You couldn’t describe how bad she looked,” Bihlajama recalls.
He and Vasquez immediately began emergency medical treatment on Dohme. They placed her on a backboard, worked to get her bleeding under control, administered an IV, and removed her rings so that her hands wouldn’t swell around them. All the while, Dohme pleaded with Bihlajama and Vasquez not to let her die. They had no intention of letting that happen, and worked to provide the best possible emergency care until they put her on the Bayflight helicopter and watched it lift away.
Bihlajama says it was one of the worst individual cases he had ever seen.
After Dohme was placed on the helicopter and flown to Bayfront Medical Center, Bihlajama never saw her in person again. But the brutal attack on Dohme made the national news, and Bihlajama followed media reports about her progress. Bihlajama says he is usually good at “compartmentalizing” — leaving the trauma he encounters on the job behind when he goes home to his family. It’s part of the job.
This particular case, however, really bothered him.
Fast forward to August 2013, more than a year after the attack. Bihlajama’s wife Kayla asked if she could join him in his ambulance for a family ride-along. Kayla had never shown an interest in participating in a ride-along before. Bihlajama was surprised at her interest, but agreed to let her join him on August 28.
On the day of the ride-along, Bihlajama and Kayla showed up to work as usual. Bihlajama then saw that Jacqueline Velaquez’s husband and children were also there. Bihlajama joked that it must be “take your family to work day.”
That’s when Melissa Dohme walked in.
It turns out that Vazquez had run into Melissa Dohme’s grandmother not long before, and learned that Dohme wanted to thank the people involved in saving her life. Vazquez set up the meeting and conspired with Kayla to surprise Bihlajama.
Bihlajama was speechless. “It was an ‘Oh my God’ moment,” he says.
Dohme looked healthy. She couldn’t thank Bilhlajama and Vasquez enough for their lifesaving actions that January morning. Her mother called them Melissa’s guardian angels.
Bihlajama is grateful that his skills and actions helped save the life of this vibrant young woman. He stresses that saving Dohme was a team effort involving the couple who called 911, the police, the Sunstar team, Clearwater Fire and Rescue, Bayflight, Bayfront Medical Center nurses and staff, the trauma surgeon, and Dohme herself. “All were vital elements of Dohme’s survival and recovery,” Bihljama says.
Melissa Dohme has recovered from her attack and has emerged as a strong voice against domestic abuse. He attacker recently pleaded guilty to attempted murder, and faces eight years to life in prison.