Families involved in ‘mistaken identity’ turn to faith during time of heartbreak

By Kaitlin Barr
April 10, 2008

On April 26, 2006, nine Taylor University students and employees worked a banquet about 15 miles away from campus. On their way home from the event, a tractor trailer driver fell asleep at the wheel, crossed the median and crashed into the school van in which Whitney Cerak and Laura Van Ryn were riding in.

Five people died instantly, and one of those who died was Whitney Cerak. A stunning blonde freshman, with a bright smile and pretty blue eyes, was ejected immediately from the van, killing her on the spot. Fifty feet away from her, was another stunning blonde Taylor University student, also with a bright smile and pretty blue eyes, Laura Van Ryn.

Whitney’s sister, Carly, also a Taylor University student, heard about the accident and called her mom right away. The Ceraks then received the dreaded phone call that no one ever wants to hear; your daughter has died.

The Van Ryn’s had received a different phone call however. They were told their daughter Laura was alive but had severe brain injuries. Upon arrival to the hospital, mom, dad and other daughter Lisa were told that Laura might not look the same, but that it was normal. For the next five weeks, they stayed by her bedside, taking shifts and never leaving Laura alone.

In the mean time, the Cerak family buried their daughter Whitney. Thousands attended her funeral and throughout it all, the Cerak’s prayed to God to take care of their child.

For five weeks, the Ceraks believed their daughter Whitney had died. And for five weeks the Van Ryn’s believed Laura was in a coma. Ready for the twist? They were mistaken at the scene and their identities were switched. Laura Van Ryn had died and had been buried, while Whitney Cerak laid alive in a coma being taken care of by total strangers.

I think it’s absolutely incredible that their identities were switched. I understand they were both thrown from the van and they were probably a mess and shattered up, but the fact that no one in the Cerak family wanted to identify their daughter’s body before they buried her is a shock to me.

I’ve had people very close to me die. One of my best guy friends from fourth grade until senior year of high school died in a horrific car accident and even I wanted to see his face. I didn’t, however, because of a closed casket but to me, seeing that person one more time would have been a comfort for me.

Back to the story a little bit. While “Laura” who really was Whitney, was coming out of her coma, she was slowly doing weird things that Laura would have known and would not have known. When asked to write her name, she would write Whitney.Yet when shown a picture of all Laura’s friends, Whitney could name everyone.

Seem weird? In an interview with “The Today Show” by Matt Lauer, Whitney’s sister Carly explained that Laura was friends with all of the people Carly played soccer with at school. Thus why Whitney could name them all. The thing that put the situation over the top was when Lisa, Laura’s sister, asked Whitney what her parents’ names were, and she said Newell and Colleen Cerak.

How different your life changes in that moment. For the Ceraks to all of a sudden have their daughter back, and for the Van Ryn’s to know that their daughter had already been buried. I can’t even imagine how that would feel.

The thing that made me have the ultimate respect for the Van Ryns and the Ceraks were that after all the confusion and heartache, they forgave everyone who messed up. They forgave the coroner for not realizing they were two different people. They forgave the truck driver who fell asleep at the wheel and caused such chaos in their lives. They didn’t want to sue anyone, which is incredible. Both of these families turned to God in times of desperation and heartache.

It’s such an unbelievable story that so many people can learn from. Most people spend their time angry or stressed out.

I think we all need to realize, life is absolutely too short to hold onto the petty stuff. We all need to live our lives. It’s so hard sometimes not to get caught up in the drama and the cattiness, especially in college but we would all have much better lives in the end for it.

Kaitlin Barr

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