By: Dale King Contributing Writer
Melissa Dohme Hill recently told the hushed audience at a luncheon in Boca Raton for domestic abuse fighters that she reluctantly agreed to give her high school ex-boyfriend one last hug in hopes he would get out of her life for good.
Instead, he tried to take her life – and nearly did. With his arms around her, the assailant snapped open a switchblade and began stabbing. With that and then another knife, he continued the carnage until Melissa lay bloodied and near death in front of her Tampa area home with 32 knife wounds.
“He stabbed me in the back of the shoulder, the face, the throat. My mouth filled with blood. All this while my mother slept inside,” she told guests Feb. 28 at the 11th annual Heart of a Woman luncheon to benefit Aid to Victims of Domestic Abuse (AVDA).
Two teens across the street who witnessed the attack the night of Jan. 24, 2012, ran to her aid, pulled the would-be killer off and called for help. At a hospital, “I flat lined four times on the table. I found myself surrounded with family, covered in bandages, connected to machines, with tubes down my throat, praying and thanking God for saving my life.”
Those seated in the gallery gasped audibly as Melissa tearfully told her story. Afterward, they stood and applauded her courage.
That is what AVDA is all about, emcee Liz Quirantes, a news anchor for Channel 12 and AVDA advisory board member, told the crowd. “Strength, courage and determination.”
Hundreds gathered for AVDA’s 11th annual Heart of a woman luncheon, which included an address by Melissa and a presentation of awards to the police chiefs of Boca Raton, Delray Beach, Highland Beach and Boynton Beach for their help in fighting domestic abuse. Event co-chairs were Jeannette DeOrchis, Rosemary Krieger, Anne Vegso and Gail Veros.
AVDA President and CEO Pam O’Brien, who is also an attorney, told how the organization has grown and expanded its service offerings since it took in its first clients in February 1986.
“For the many individuals that need our help, AVDA provides a community of hope through our state-certified domestic violence center that offers a comprehensive array of services for all victims of domestic violence including a 24-hour crisis hotline, emergency and transitional housing, advocacy, counseling and support to help them live violence-free and self-sufficient lives. We also work throughout the community to educate and engage people of all ages in our commitment to prevent violence.”
“AVDA provides a hand-up, not a hand-out,” said event co-chair Rosemary DeOrchis, who admitted she is a domestic violence survivor herself. Another speaker, Dr. Heidi Schaeffer, who serves on four boards that help battle abuse, said she was also a survivor of domestic cruelty. “It took me four years to say those words,” she said. “You are the first to hear them.”
Before the four police chiefs accepted their awards, O’Brien pointed out that every police officer who has served on the AVDA board “has become a chief.”
Luncheon co-chairs presented the awards to Boca Raton Police Chief Dan Alexander, Boynton Beach Interim Chief Kelly Harris, Delray Beach Chief Jeff Goldman and Highland Beach Chief Craig Hartman.
During her address which concluded the luncheon, Melissa said she was barely 20 and had long ago ended her relationship with the assailant she identified as Robert Burton. He persisted with phone calls asking for “one last hug” and promised to get out of her life.
He is out of her life now, she said. In October 2013, he was convicted of attempted murder and was sentenced to life behind bars. “And this is Florida, so he will serve the time.”
His sentencing “was a defining moment in my life,” she said. She gave up her intention of becoming a baby nurse and took a job with Hands across the Bay, an advocacy group for abused women in the Tampa region.
“Like AVDA, we help women get back on their feet,” she said. “Both groups are helping abused women become survivors.”
From behind a podium in the Royal Palm Yacht Club dining room, Melissa said she wished she could have called upon an organization like AVDA before she endured many instances of abuse.
She added a delightful post-script to her story. “There was a silver lining,” said Melissa. “My injuries led me to meet Cameron Hill, a firefighter who loaded me into a rescue helicopter.” They became friends, then lovers and were married in 2017. With her hubby seated at a table nearby, she announced they would celebrate their first wedding anniversary on March 4.