The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

September 11, 2013

Former Conneaut man meets the woman he helped save

By MARK TODD - mtodd@starbeacon.com
Star Beacon

CONNEAUT — Until a surprise reunion a few days ago, the last time Jason Bihlajama saw Melissa Dohme, she was covered in blood from nearly three dozen stab wounds.

That was January 2012, when the former Conneaut resident and his partner steered their Sunstar Paramedics ambulance to an assault call in Clearwater, Fla. They found Dohme, now 22, barely alive near a city park. She had been attacked by an ex-boyfriend, who stabbed her 32 times in the neck, face and arms, knocked out her teeth and cracked her skull.

Bihlajama, 32, and partner Jackie Vazquez prepped Dohme and sped her to a nearby hospital. Despite the care, Bihlajama was not optimistic.

“I had big-time doubts (Dohme would survive),” he said. “I was told she died three times in surgery.”

But Dohme did not die. In fact, she has made an amazing recovery, and recently surprised the paramedics with a visit. Dohme, on a mission to thank everyone who helped her survive that night, only recently learned that Dohme and Vazquez were the first paramedics on the scene. Bihlajama’s wife, Kayla, arranged the Aug. 28 reunion — unbeknownst to her husband.

“It was a surprise,” he said. “She walked in with her mother. I recognized her right away. (The media) has been following her progress.”

Such displays of gratitude happen “rarely ever,” Bihlajama said. “Sometimes you get an e-mail or a phone call,” he said.

Bihlajama, who graduated from Conneaut High School in 1999, moved to Pinellas County, Fla., in 2002. His employer, Sunstar, provides emergency medical service to the Clearwater-St. Petersburg area. While in Conneaut, Bihlajama was an on-call firefighter and a member of the fire department’s dive team.

“It was good experience,” he said.

Dohme’s attacker was her former boyfriend Robert Burton, who last month pleaded guilty to attempted murder. He faces eight years to life in prison, according to news reports.

A couple who happened to be in the vicinity interrupted the attack, pulling Burton off his victim, newspapers reported. Burton fled and was apprehended a short time later. Today, Bihlajama downplays his role in the incident.

“Give the credit to the young couple who pulled (Burton) off her,” he said. “We just happened to be the first link.”

More than 18 months later, the events of that early morning remain a vivid memory, Bihlajama said.

“Most of our (assignments) are pretty routine,” he said. “Ninety percent are the mundane, but when you get one, you have to be on your toes. I’ll always remember that one. That call left a lasting impression on me.”