Friday, July 18, 2008

Mistaken Identity (I just finished reading it)

In the midst of a quick trip to the library two weeks ago, I grabbed a book off the shelf in the New Releases section entitled Mistaken Identity. The cover caught my attention because it showed the pictures of two young, blonde college students who had been involved in a car accident in Indiana in April 2006. I vaguely remembered the story making headlines at the time, due to the unusual and incredible circumstances that were uncovered almost 5 weeks after the accident. Several students and employees of Taylor University were riding in a van on the interstate that night, coming back from an event when they were hit by a semi-truck that crossed the median. A sudden slip of the wheel in that split second became a fatal accident that took the lives of five of the nine passengers and critically injured another. The two women on the cover are Whitney Cerak and Laura Van Ryan. One of them died in the accident while the other survived but was in a coma for several weeks. Incredibly, the identities of these two girls were reversed at the scene that night. The Cerak family buried the body that they believed to be their daughter, while the Van Ryan family cared for the girl in a coma believing she was their daughter who had survived the crash. For weeks they each lived opposite lives of grief and hope, sustained by their faith in God.

Cold chills ran down my spine as I read the personal accounts of each family receiving those heart wrenching phone calls the night of the accident. I could see their features crumble after they answered the phone and heard a stranger’s voice on the other end, telling them that their daughters had been in an accident. As the reality of that night began to unfold, I entered their world filled with confusion and fear. Which hospital had they taken the survivors? Where had they taken those who didn’t survive? Was anyone else injured? Did anyone else survive? Until the parents of the other students in the van were notified, these questions hung in the air unanswered.

The Cerak family celebrated their daughter’s 19th birthday by showing videos of her past parties, which played during visitation at the funeral home. Friends created posters with pictures of their favorite memories so Whitney’s smile would shine around the room. Her sister forced the family to sit together each morning in devotion and prayer, and spoke of Whitney’s love for God at her funeral. Her mother allowed friends to come by and choose clothes from her closet instead of giving them away to strangers. For the next week, the family clung together and talked about all the good times they had spent with Whitney. Often they talked about how they managed to make it through each day, realizing it was the hand of God that was holding them up. While reading their story, I allowed myself to slip into their skin and wear their grief, as the pain of their loss pierced my heart. Even though I knew the outcome, they were in the midst of living their lives with the loss of their youngest daughter.

On the night of the accident, the Van Ryan family rushed to the hospital to be by their daughter’s side, unaware that they would not leave for several weeks. Lying in the hospital bed was a young blonde girl in a coma with a serious brain injury. She was on a respirator, in a neck brace, had multiple serious fractures, and was hooked up to a machine to monitor the pressure on her brain. Each day they sat by her side, praying and willing her to heal. During this time, her sister created a blog so that friends and family could check on her progress daily, send comments, and post their prayers. Soon the family was receiving comments from concerned people as far away as Australia who had heard about the accident. She remained in a coma for several weeks, after which was transferred to a rehabilitation facility closer to home. During the time of her recovery, Laura’s family never questioned that the girl lying in the bed was not their daughter. The book does describe conversations they have about unusual things; they noticed her navel piercing (they never knew she had one), or that her teeth looked different (it must be due to the force of the accident). In the rehab facility, she gets names mixed up and asks for someone named Hunter (which was the family’s dog). They are told these ‘mistakes” are common in people with brain injuries like this. Five weeks after being critically injured in the accident, Laura is asked to write her name on a piece of paper. She spells it W-H-I-T-N-E-Y. Her sister bends down to talk to the young woman in front of her and asks if she knows last name. Cerak, her name is Whitney Cerak. Not Laura Van Ryan.

Tears flowed as I read about the week that followed. The book begins with the phone call that the Cerak family received that night, asking for Whitney’s dental records to confirm that she may be alive. Her sister is enraged by the call, believing it is just a prank. She and her mother remain uncertain and refuse to cling to a shred of hope as they travel during the night to visit an unidentified girl lying in a hospital bed. Whitney’s father was out of town for a church trip and they question if they should even call him with the news. The Van Ryan’s also wait at home for news from the dental records to confirm that this girl is NOT Laura. They call their other children together and wait for the miracle they know will not come. Soon they begin to grieve for their daughter who is already gone.

Two families came together to write this unbelievable story of Mistaken Identity. Threads of faith and scripture are woven throughout, which lifted me up even during the lowest moments of sorrow. Even so, I still struggle to understand why God allows such heart wrenching events like this to happen. I cautiously recommend this book, but only if you are prepared for the truth that is sitting right in front of your face.


ashley said...

oooooohhh! you're making me want to read this right now!! but, i have a stack of about 4 books next to my bed that are due next week i think! no time to read these days!!! :) thanks for the book review :)

M Denise C said...

What an awesome book review! You are such a good writer! I remember this story being on a TV show such as Law & Order or in a TV movie. I am glad the families came together and wrote this book.

Mama P said...

Great review. And thanks for posting on BabyCenter. I appreciate it. And finally, your husband and baby are just delicious. I want to eat them both for breakfast with syrup. Good job, girl! Have a great day. Andrea.

Steph said...

i finished listening to it yesterday on my iPod. this is the only book the has actually struck me as sincere and heart breaking, as I listened to the book I had already guessed that the girl lying in the bede in the coma was not really Laura Van Ryan, but Whitney Cerak. Then I thought,"this actually happened to someone, it really happened to a girl called Whitney Cerak and her family and the Van Ryan family." and when I realised this, I nearly burst into tears, it was just so sad, I couldn't believe that it had actually happened, I thought that it was unbelievable, then I vaguely remembered a newspaper headline that said something along the same lines and I thought Whitney is a totally different person now, I wonder if I had the strength through to go through something like this. That was when I thought, "how does Whitney feel about all this?" and I realised, this girl must have a lot of strength and passion for God.