Mistaken Identity:

Two Families,

One Survivor,

Unwavering Hope


Don and Susie Van Ryn and Newell, Colleen, and Whitney Cerak with Mark Tabb

Book cover: Mistaken Identity: Two Families, One Survivor, Unwavering Hope

On April 26, 2006, a driver of a semi-trailer truck fell asleep at the wheel, crossed the median, and struck a van belonging to Taylor University in Indiana. Taylor University is a Christian-evangelical university of about two thousand students. That accident killed five people in the van and injured four others. This accident would later receive much national attention, becoming the story for a two hour Dateline NBC documentary, and part of the Today show.

What made this event so newsworthy is that one college student (Laura Van Ryn) was assumed to be a survivor; while another student (Whitney Cerak) was assumed to be dead. Laura and Whitney look very similar and after a significant injury with a resulting coma, even the parents did not know that a mistake had been made. To compound the problem, Whitney’s family did not wish to remember what their daughter looked like after the accident and did not make a visual identification of the body. They also had a closed-casket funeral.

In the meanwhile the Van Ryn family all but moved to the hospital to support and care for the girl they assumed was their daughter, Laura. And not until “Laura” was out of her coma for awhile did the truth come out. She said her name was Whitney, and wondered why “false parents” were taking care of her. More traumas would now occur as the Van Ryn family members would have to go through the grieving process of losing their daughter.

The Cerak family would get their daughter back, but not exactly the same girl because of changes her brain injury produced in her personality. The two families have become good friends, and support one another.

What makes this story significant are the Christian values expressed and practiced by the two families. Those involved with the families have been moved by the fine values they demonstrated, and felt others could be helped if a book were written. Persuading the families took some doing as each family valued its privacy, and stayed away from the media for almost two years.

The book shows what can happen to anyone, and how the families turned to prayer and trusted God to bring them through all their traumas. If I have any criticism of the book, it is that it only shows everyone reacting in strictly positive ways. There must have been times when poor reactions, such as wrong anger, must have occurred. It would be helpful to us and would humanize things if more of those poor reactions were covered in the book.

After Whitney returned to college the next year, she felt she was under some great obligation to become something super-special for God. That feeling was precipitated by students making statements to her along the line of, “God must have something in mind for you or you would not be with us.” Such words made her feel uncomfortable and pressured.

Then a student friend (Brad) talked to her about Elijah fleeing to the wilderness, where God comes and speaks with him. (1Kings 19) A great windstorm occurs, then an earthquake, then a fire - and God is in none of these. God then speaks to Elijah in a still, small voice.

Whitney concludes: “I realized that instead of thinking that my life has to be some big windstorm or earthquake for God, perhaps I only have to let Him whisper gently through my life. That story made me realize I don’t have to accomplish some giant thing for God. If I’m just a camp counselor who makes the difference in the life of one person, or if I’m just a mom who loves her children and tells them about Jesus, that’s enough. It took a little while, but I finally figured out that Gods purpose is for me to let Him do whatever He wants in my life, big or small. Being a part of writing this book may be the last ‘big’ thing I ever do, and I’m fine with that.”

Book Review
By Bill Stough
Title: Mistaken Identity: Two Families, One Survivor, Unwavering Hope
Author: Don and Susie Van Ryn and Newell, Colleen, and Whitney Cerak with Mark Tabb. Copyright 2008
Publisher: Howard Books, a division of Simon and Schuster, Inc.
ISBN-13: 978-1-4165-6735-6
ISBN-10: 1-4165-6735-6

Volume 9 Issue 2 | Notes from Nancy | Women in Christ Commentary | Bible Study Guide | Abundance of the Heart | Exhortation | Book Review

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