Your entire life can change in the blink of an eye. It’s something that everyone knows to be true, but it’s also something that very few people ever actually experience for themselves.
When a van transporting college students was involved in a terrible accident on the highway, the damage was brutal. Those who didn’t lose their lives saw them forever changed.
However, for one family, life didn’t change just once. For them, it actually happened twice, and their story needs to be seen to be believed…
On Wednesday, April 26, 2006, a van carrying students who worked in the dining services department at Taylor University in Indiana was returning to school from the city of Fort Wayne. They had been away from campus setting up for a scholarship banquet.
They were driving down Interstate 69 when something awful happened on the road. The driver of a semi-truck rig fell asleep behind the wheel of his vehicle and careened into the van at top speed.
First responders from three different counties rushed to the scene to provide help to the injured. No one could believe the force of the impact with which the truck had collided with the much smaller van.
Elizabeth Smith, 22; Bradley Larson, 22; Laurel Erb, 20; Whitney Cerak, 18; and Taylor University employee Monica Felver, 53, were all pronounced dead at the scene. Four survivors immediately needed to be hospitalized, including 22-year-old senior Laura Van Ryn…
Don and Susie Van Ryn, Laura’s parents, raced to the hospital as soon as they heard the news. They learned that their daughter was suffering from major head injuries. She was in critical condition and it was tough to say if she would even survive.
Laura was in a state of near coma, and the doctors were not optimistic about her recovery. However, this didn’t stop her family from sitting at her bedside every single hour of every single day. They refused to give up hope.
As Laura struggled to pull through, the rest of the community at Taylor mourned the loss of their fellow students. Funerals were held and people grieved. Meanwhile, Laura continued to be in a sort of holding pattern in the hospital, neither improving nor getting worse…
Just when doctors thought it was time to pull the plug, Laura surprised them all: she began to recover! Her progress was incredibly slow, but it was impossible to ignore. Eventually, she was moved to a rehabilitation facility to continue her healing process.
It was when Laura was transferred to the rehabilitation facility that her family began to have some questions. They couldn’t shake the feeling that something was seriously wrong with Laura—and they didn’t mean her injuries from the accident…
Laura’s parents couldn’t explain why her teeth looked so different. They were also shocked to learn that she had a pierced naval. Their fears doubled when her college roommate came to visit and blanched upon coming into the room, saying, “She doesn’t look anything like herself.”
Her family tried to ignore these things and just move forward. When Laura would say or do something that didn’t really jive with who she was before the accident, they chalked it up to her head injury…
Laura seemed so different that finally a therapist asked her to write down her name on a piece of paper, hoping to get to the root of what was happening. She took the pen and wrote out “Whitney.” The therapist asked her who were parents were and she said Newell and Colleen… as in the parents of the late Whitney Cerak!
The Van Ryn family had a dental exam performed and learned the worst news imaginable: the girl in the hospital bed they had been visiting for months wasn’t their daughter, Laura, at all. Rather, she was another young woman named Whitney. There’d been a terrible mix-up.
For the Van Ryn family, their worst fears were confirmed. Their daughter was gone, buried in a grave under a different name. Meanwhile, poor Whitney had been crying out for her own parents for weeks.
First responders believe the mix-up happened at the scene of the crash when Laura’s ID was found and clipped to Whitney instead. Since the two girls share similar features and blonde hair, it was an understandable, if shocking, mistake.
The accident itself was already so tragic, and both families had endured so much. The fact that their story wasn’t over yet was more than they could stand. One family was getting a daughter returned to them, another was losing theirs…
“Soon after we saw Whitney, our family met with the Van Ryns and our joy for ourselves was pushed aside by the pain we felt for them,” said Whitney’s sister, Carly. “It is hard because our joy is their pain… This immediately brought back all the realness of the pain we felt only a few days ago.”
The Van Ryn family and the Cernak family just wanted to get on with their lives and start the process of healing. However, the media wasn’t content with leaving them alone. They demanded a comment, but for two years the families remained silent.
When they finally did come forward, they let Whitney do the talking. “The Van Ryns, they loved me like I was their daughter because they believed that I was their daughter,” Whitney said, describing the strange but special bond the two families now shared.
Four years later, Whitney married her husband, Matt, in the same church where her own funeral was held. The couple now has three children together, and they cherish every day knowing just how precious life really is.
What an unsettling twist of fate! This story’s ending is so bittersweet. On the one hand, it’s amazing that Whitney’s family got her back; that said, how sad is it for Laura’s family? It serves as a touching reminder that we should never take a single moment for granted and remember to be thankful of each day we’re alive!
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