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Video: Mistaken identity case

TODAY contributor
updated 3/27/2008 9:45:39 AM ET 2008-03-27T13:45:39

Whitney Cerak carries the events she cannot remember with her constantly, a story of terrible tragedy and great triumph, an experience that has infused her life with purpose and faith.

“It’s going to be with me for the rest of my life,” says the young woman who, in a terrible case of mistaken identity, was thought to be dead for five long weeks in the spring of 2006. “I think about it every day.”

She’s at peace now, thankful for the gift of life that has been given her.

But in the beginning, when she was trying to wrap her mind around everything that she was told had happened, she was tortured by it.

Cerak had been one of nine people in a van returning to Taylor University after a school function. The van had been hit head-on by a tractor trailer whose driver had fallen asleep while driving on I-69 in Indiana.

Five people had been killed, including her classmate, Laura Van Ryn.

Cerak, who grew up in the little Michigan town of Gaylord, suffered multiple broken bones and a severe head injury, and she has no memory of the wreck or the five weeks that followed, when she was hospitalized.

During that time, she was mistaken for Van Ryn. And Van Ryn was buried as her.

Taylor University is an evangelical Christian institution, and Cerak’s deep faith infuses everything she does. But when she understood the enormity of what had happened, her faith was tested as never before.

“It was really hard in the beginning,” she said. “I questioned God all the time. I’d cry out to Him.”

Cerak didn’t understand why she had survived when others had perished. She didn’t understand why her family’s unbridled joy at learning that she was alive should come at the expense of the devastating blow the Van Ryn family had to cope with when they learned that their daughter had been dead for more than a month.

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Finally, her father, Newell Cerak, answered her constant question of “Why me?”

“My dad said, ‘Whitney, why not you?’ ”

It was then that she realized it was because her creator had plans for her.

“God, the maker of everything, chose me to do this huge thing that’s going to happen,” she said. “It’s very humbling to know that He chose me. He knew all that was going to happen. He just had a great plan.”

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Whitney Cerak
The book that the Van Ryn and Cerak families have written about their experiences, “Mistaken Identity: Two Families, One Survivor, Unwavering Hope,” is part of that plan, she said. Through it and through her story, she is touching lives and witnessing her faith in ways she never could have before.

“I think everything has a plan,” she said. “Mine just happens to be this. It’s such a big role to do.”

Horrific crash
The accident occurred on April 26, 2006, three days before Cerak’s 19th birthday. She was finishing her freshman year in college. The five weeks after the accident, including nearly two weeks spent in a coma, remain a black hole in her memory.

Although she was undergoing rehabilitation for much of that time, tended to by the Van Ryns, who thought she was their daughter, her first memory after the accident is of the emotional day her family, alerted that there may have been a case of mistaken identity, came to see her.

She doesn’t remember everything after that, her memories mainly consisting of how tired she was from the fierce effort to rehabilitate her broken body and wounded brain. Although not fully recovered, she was back at Taylor for the beginning of the fall 2006 semester.

Whitney said she still had cognitive problems when she resumed a three-course workload in that first semester.

“My thinking skills weren’t there,” she said. “I had the mentality of an eighth-grader, and I was in college. I had a lot of growing to do. It’s still a little struggle. It’s like a learning disability. It’s something I live with now.”

With plenty of help from the school community, she made it through that semester, getting better all the time. By last summer, she was well enough to work as a counselor at a summer camp. It was there that she finally felt whole physically.

“My energy was back where it used to be,” she said. “I could run. I played soccer and played basketball.” It was all there, just the way it used to be.

By this past fall, she said, another neurological checkup showed that she had regained all of her mental faculties. “That’s when I felt completely back,” she said.

Whitney is majoring in psychology and is fully caught up with her schoolwork now. A junior, she is enrolled in a foreign studies program in Ireland this semester and savors every moment of life, appreciating it all the more because she knows how close she was to losing it.

In the end, it’s a gift that she has been given and a lesson she has learned in the most difficult way possible.

The lesson is, she says, “knowing not to take things for granted.”

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