It was supposed to be the “Summer of Bella and Ida,” a bit like “Thelma and Louise” but without the crime spree and double-suicide ending.
Ida Hernandez had been homeless for a couple of years. She had settled into the homeless community in Northern California but figured since she had no kids, no husband and a lot of freedom, she should get out and see the world.
So, she and Bella began traveling the country in the passenger seats of tractor-trailers, hitchhiking their way and making many friends across the country.
It was on just such a ride, headed through Oklahoma toward California, when Hernandez and her riding partner found themselves in the middle of the tornado that slashed through Shawnee on May 19, 2013.
The last thing Hernandez remembered was being in that cab, with a death-defying grip on her Bella, an 8-year-old Chihuahua-terrier mix. Hernandez remembers looking over the edge of the highway overpass they were about to careen off, shoved by the force of a giant tornado that bore down upon them.
She’d seen the tornado as it approached them.
“It looked horrible. It was weird, all my vision, all my peripheral vision, the whole was filled up with that tornado,” Hernandez said.
Still, she didn’t panic.
“We’re going to be OK, Bella; we’re in God’s hands; he’s going to protect us,” Hernandez remembers telling her pet. She wrapped her body around Bella and braced for impact. She and the dog were thrown, breaking through the passenger side window.
That’s when everything went black for Hernandez. She suspects she was knocked unconscious when her head hit the window.
Hernandez thinks she landed in a roll, since her body was wrapped around Bella. The landing may have protected Bella, but Hernandez was injured badly. She suffered a severed vertebrae in her spinal cord, a compound break of her left leg and damage to the tendons in her other knee. She broke several ribs, which made breathing quite painful. She’ll never be able to use her legs, she said.
She was in critical condition at OU Medical Center when she met Kalle McKee, a physical therapist assigned to help Hernandez regain her range of motion.
Each time the two met for therapy, they became closer and Hernandez would ask if anyone had found Bella.
Meanwhile, McKee had been dealing with a trial of her own — her mother was dying of cancer. Her community came together to raise money for the family, and the support they provided was incredibly moving to McKee.
“How can I ever repay these people? I can’t,” McKee remembers thinking of her gratitude. “There’s no way. But in a small way, it was God telling me, ‘You need to pay it forward, and this is what you can do. Go find the dog.’ I don’t know if I can but at least try.”
She had a good description of little Bella — from the nick in one of Bella’s perky brown ears, to the pink beaded necklace Hernandez had made her and her California tags with a bell attached.
McKee combed through Facebook for days, and finally, there she was. There was no doubt this was Bella — she still wore her pink beaded necklace.
McKee waited until Hernandez was out of intensive care and brought the dog to see her master in the hospital for the first time since the day the tornado separated the two.
“It was just like the best feeling that you could ever possibly have. It was just joyful and kind of teary and happy and all those emotions all rolling after another,” Hernandez said.
“It lifted my spirit. It nourished me spiritually and mentally. If I’d have lost Bella, my recovery would have been a lot different.”
Now, Hernandez has been staying at Vista Pointe Care and Rehab Center, and for the past year, McKee has fostered Bella in her home. She’s a dog lover, with a Yorkie and a Yorkie/Maltese mix. The three dogs get along just fine, she said.
McKee brings Bella to visit Hernandez at least once a week.
The fate of Hernandez’s traveling partner is unknown.
After some red tape is cleared, the Red Cross will take Hernandez (and Bella) by helicopter to El Paso, Texas, where Hernandez has some family and friends, she said.
“I think it was a perfect plan,” Hernandez said of her friendship with McKee. “God put us together, and our paths crossed for a certain reason. And there’s a purpose for it. I survived that tornado; I was reunited with my dog. I could have died or my injuries could have been much, much worse.
“She’s my little road dog. This girl could tell some stories if she could talk.”